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.
10 Powerful Reasons to Practice Kapalabhati
- Cleanses the respiratory passageways
- Expels stale air
- Strengthens the nervous system
- Tones the digestive organs
- Purifies the nadis (subtle channels)
- Increases oxygen to the brain
- Energizes the mind
- Strengthens the lungs
- Tones the abdominal muscles
- Enlivens 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.
- Sit comfortably with the spine straight. This opens the chest for full use of the lungs.
- Rest both palms on the knees in jnana mudra (thumb and index fingers touching) to create a pranic circuit that drives energy toward the brain.
- Close the eyes. Take three natural breaths.
- Inhale naturally, then forcefully and quickly exhale through the nose by contracting the abdominal muscles. This movement draws the belly toward the spine.
- Relax the abdominal muscles, allowing for a natural inhalation. No force is needed here. As the abdominal muscles relax and the diaphragm descends, the lungs automatically inflate with air.
- Practice 20 of these pumping movements—forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations.
- End on an exhalation. Take three natural breaths. Practice up to three cycles.
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:
- Contracting the belly while inhaling, instead of exhaling
- Not allowing enough time between exhalations
- Forcing the inhalations
- Slouching the shoulders
- Hunching over
- Dropping the chin
- Jerking the body
- Tensing the face
- Keeping the eyes open
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