Learning yogic breath control exercises is one of the most important parts of developing your yoga practice. Called “pranayama” in Sanskrit, these breathing exercises can help to bring balance and depth to your overall well-being. According to the ancient text, the Yoga Sutras, compiled by the sage Patanjali in 150 BCE, pranayama is one of the classical Eight Limbs of Yoga. Pranayama helps to cleanse, balance, and purify your essential life force (called “prana” in Sanskrit). Adding pranayama to your yoga and meditation practice can help you stay healthy in mind, body, and spirit.
Kapalabhati (also Kapalbhati) Pranayama — (kah-pah-luh-BAH-tee prah-nah-YAH-mah) — is an intermediate-tp-advanced pranayama that consists of short, powerful exhales and passive inhales. This exercise is a traditional internal purification practice, or kriya, that tones and cleanses the respiratory system by encouraging the release of toxins and waste matter. It acts as a tonic for the system, refreshing and rejuvenating the body and mind.
Its name comes from two Sanskrit words:
- “Kapala”— meaning “skull”
- “Bhati”— meaning “light”
Therefore, it is sometimes referred to as “Light Skull Breathing” or “Skull Brightener Breath.” As you practice, you can imagine the lining of your skull being filled with the brightness of enlightenment.
Benefits of Kapalabhati Pranayama
Kapalabhati is invigorating and warming. It helps to cleanse the lungs, sinuses, and respiratory system, which can help to prevent illness and allergies. Regular practice strengthens the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. This exercise also increases your body's oxygen supply, which stimulates and energizes the brain while preparing it for meditation and work that requires high focus.
Before you've practiced, the theory is useless. After you've practiced, the theory is obvious.
Kapalabhati Pranayama is an advanced breathing technique. Do not attempt it if you are not proficient with basic pranayamas, such as Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) and Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama). Also avoid practicing Kapalabhati if you currently have high blood pressure, heart disease, or a hernia. Women who are pregnant should avoid practicing this exercise, as well. As with all breathing exercises, always approach the practice with caution, especially if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma or emphysema.
Never attempt any pranayama for the first time without the guidance of a qualified and knowledgeable teacher. Stop the exercise if you become faint or dizzy. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
To begin, sit in a comfortable position where your spine is straight and your abdomen is not compressed. Some options include:
- An upright seated position, such as Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
- Sitting on your heels, with your knees bent and shins tucked beneath your thighs in Hero Pose (Virasana)
- A seated position on a chair with your feet flat on the floor
- Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down.
- Bring your awareness to your lower belly. To heighten your awareness, you can place your hands, one on top of the other, on your lower belly rather than on your knees.
- Inhale through both nostrils deeply.
- Contract your low belly or use your hands to gently press on this area, forcing out the breath in a short burst.
- As you quickly release the contraction, your inhalation should be automatic and passive — your focus should be on exhaling.
- Begin slowly, aiming for 65-70 contractions per minute. Gradually quicken the pace, aiming for 95-105 exhalation/inhalation cycles per minute. Always go at your own pace and stop if you feel faint or dizzy.
- After one minute of the exercise, inhale deeply through the nostrils, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Depending on your experience level, you may repeat the exercise.
When practiced correctly, Kapalabhati Pranayama will cleanse, energize, and invigorate your mind, body, and spirit. This pranayama requires knowledge of and experience with basic breathing exercises. If you are new to pranayama, allow yourself time to get acquainted with and proficient at Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) and Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) before introducing Kapalabhati into your practice. In addition, keep the following in mind when practicing this exercise:
- Keep your focus on your low belly and on your exhalations throughout the exercise.
- Do not contract your abdomen when you inhale.
- Keep your spine and shoulders still throughout the exercise — the only movement should be in your lower belly.
- Never force your breath on inhalations or exhalations.
- If your breath becomes strained, or if you become dizzy or anxious, stop the exercise and return to your normal breathing pattern.
Breathe in Brightness
Practicing Kapalabhati Pranayama can bring balance and purity to your life on many levels, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Remember to take it slowly at first, and build on your experience as you gain more control. Breathing consciously, yet effortlessly, can break down barriers that you didn't even know existed! The benefits of regular pranayama practice will show up in all areas of your life, both on and off the mat.