Kapalabhati’s translation says it all: shining skull. It’s such a cleansing pranayama, or breathing technique, that the ancient yogis claimed it bestowed radiance and a glowing face to its practitioners. Whether or not it lives up those claims, kapalabhati is a beautiful practice for daily use, expelling old, stale air from the lungs and making room for fresh, life-giving prana.
Like all pranayama, kapalabhati should be practiced on an empty stomach. And it absolutely should not be practiced near bedtime. Its stimulating effect on the nervous system wakes up the body and can prevent sleep.
Some teachers argue that kapalabhati isn’t pranayama at all, but actually one of the yogic cleansing practices (shatkarma). And it does just that: cleanses the respiratory passageways. This makes it an excellent practice to do before other pranayama exercises.
Kapalabhati is similar to bhastrika pranayama, or bellows breathing, but with one major difference. In bhastrika, both inhalations and exhalations are forced. In kapalabhati, only the exhalations are forced. Inhalations are passive and happen naturally.
The number of pumping movements can gradually be increased from 20 to 60.
The next stage is to incorporate internal breath retention, or antar kumbhaka. Complete a full cycle of pumping movements, take a natural breath, and then hold the breath for 20 to 30 seconds. Do this between each cycle.
It takes a few rounds of kapalabhati before most yoga students fully grasp its unusual breathing pattern. When teaching your students this exercise, look out for these common mistakes:
Don’t leave it up to your students to count their own exhalations. Instead, guide them by rhythmically clapping to indicate exactly when they should exhale.
Reference: Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar, India: Yoga Publications