Kapalabhati – skull shining breath
Pranayama techniques may be categorized as:
- those that are heating (energizing or vitalizing) and those that are cooling (tranquilizing)
- those which are safe to learn from a book or a website
- And those that must be learned over an extended period of time from a qualified teacher. Kapalabhathi, कपाल भाति , belongs to this kind.
Although this blog is going to present you with instructions on the technique of Kapalabhati, it is still best to learn this pranayama from a yoga instructor who has had a long standing personal practice, instead of learning from books and videos. Along with learning the basic technique, there are variations that have to be introduced at the ‘right’ time based on the regularity and progress in your practice.
Kapalabhati कपाल भाति , is often considered as an important Kriya, a cleansing process, also called as Kapalashodhana; कपाल शोधन. But some texts also consider it as a Pranayama, breathing technique. Kapala means “skull,” and bhaati means “that which brings lightness or shine.” Therefore, it is referred to as skull-shining breath.
In Kapalabhati, the breaths are short, rapid, and strong. Most frequently asked question here is – should the abdominal muscles be actively contracted for this pranayama? It is logical to assume that the breath is expelled through the nose due to the contraction of the abdominal muscles. The following is a simple explanation of how it happens.
Following a deep inhale, short, rapid, strong puffs are expelled. The abdomen relaxes which prompts the diaphragm to descend triggering a passive inhalation. In other words, air is pushed out of the lungs as exhales or multiple puffs, which is generated by passive contractions of the abdominal muscles. And, inhales are involuntary responses to the release of this contraction, which mechanically draws the air back into the lungs. The abdomen is instinctively contracted and relaxed in this way for a series of puffs.
Most importantly, Kapalabhathi is often misunderstood as Bhastrika Pranayama, bellows breath, where the abdominal muscles are active in both inhales and exhales (another post).
It is critical to understand the technique clearly before you perform it. Faulty habits when performing Kapalabhati can lead to abnormal changes in the energy system leading to restlessness, dizziness, anger and other undesirable emotional changes.
Kapalabhati must be done on an empty stomach. It must not be practiced at night as it may cause insomnia. It is contraindicated in people suffering from heart disease, vertigo, ulcers and pregnancy.
Single Nostril Kapalabhati
- Find your most comfortable seat.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale.
- Do 5-10 rapid/forceful exhalations through your left nostril.
- On the 10th count exhale completely. Take a deep inhale and slow exhale through both the nostrils.
- This completes one round of Kapalabhati through the left nostril.
- Do 3-5 rounds each side.
- Repeat steps 2-6 by closing your left nostril with left thumb and rapid exhalations from your right nostril.
- Start with 5-10 puffs. You can increase 5-10 puffs every two weeks depending on the consistency of your practice.
- Some schools may instruct you to increase to 50 or 100 puffs rather quickly. Please monitor the changes in your daily emotions and energy in your activities before making your decision. The choice is yours.
- If one nostril is blocked, do not perform this pranayama on the open nostril only and forget about the closed one. This also causes changes in your energy system giving rise to undesirable emotional changes.
Double nostril Kapalabhathi
- Begin by settling your breath.
- Inhale. Begin rapid puffs or exhales.
- Keep your focus on tip of your nose (Nasasgray Dhrishti)
- Count 10-20 breath puffs, keeping a steady rhythm and emphasizing the exhalation each time. (start with 5-10)
- Exhale completely, followed by a deep breath.
- As you become more adept at contracting/releasing your belly rhythmically, you can increase your pace to your comfort. Faster is NOT necessarily better.
- Do 25 to 50 puffs for the first 6 months to a year with consistent regularity.
- Observe any changes in your energy and activity levels, health or sudden appearance of undesirable emotions, like anger anxiety or depression. If this happens, stop the practice and let your teacher know how you are feeling.
- If everything is going well – you are feeling energized and healthy, then gradually increase by 5-10 breaths every 2 weeks or every 4 weeks or at your pace, going up to a 100 if able.
- Once you have determined the number of puffs, practice three rounds at each sitting. Even as you increase the number of puffs every few weeks, let the number of rounds remain the same.
It is best to work with an instructor on a regular basis to discuss your experiences and make adjustments to your practice. It is also beneficial to let the instructor observe your practice so she can detect any abnormal rhythms or techniques that you may have introduced unconsciously and catch it before it becomes a faulty habit.
- For seasonal allergies – The air sharply expelled helps to remove dust particles from the respiratory tract and helps to clear the toxins and phlegm in the nasal passages.
- Cleanses the lungs & entire respiratory system
- Increases lung capacity, increases oxygen throughout entire body and
- Tones the digestive system and regulates metabolic rate
- Brings balance into sympathetic and para-sympathetic parts of the nervous system
- Stimulates normal functioning of the endocrine system and tones abdominal muscles.
- Kapalabhati is practiced before meditation as it minimizes sensory distractions and induces a calm state of mind.
- It also helps to overcome depression, stress and other negative emotions.
- It brings tejas, तेजस्, brilliance, shine to the face and activates energy in the body.
It took me couple of months to learn the technique perfectly and few more months to settle into a routine of daily pranayama practice.
In the beginning, the breath appeared to be ‘caught’ in my throat and I ended up doing Ujjaiyi Pranayama with rapid puffs on the exhale. I had to restart each time this happened.
When I practiced Kapalabhathi correctly, I noticed an increase in body temperature. The layers of blankets came off, warming me up from the inside on cold winter mornings. This pranayama definitely falls under the category of heating pranayamas.
When I was tired I noticed my effort waning. I was unable to keep the first breath/puff as strong as the last one and had to cut down the number of rounds from five to three. Although I (my ego rather) did not want to go back to previous count on tired and sick days, practicing with Ahimsa, was necessary to honor my body.
When increasing the numbers of breaths/puffs per round, I had to monitor the strength of the last puff and progress accordingly.
I realized that attention was key to stay on track. If my mind wandered, the technique became faulty and my breaths were not strong and clear. The idea is to keep the breath steady and powerful.
Practicing Kapalabhathi Pranayama has led to a decrease in postnasal drip and I am able to manage my seasonal allergies effectively during the months that I am not on medication. As a result, my mind is not bogged down by the body and I am able to direct my attention to the technique and notice its mental/spiritual benefits in my daily pranayama practices.
Saraswati, Niranjanananda Swami. 2009. Prana and Pranayama. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.