Kapalbhati Pranayama – The Skull Shining Breathing Excercise

Kapalbhati (or Kapalabhati) is one of the six Shatkarmas or methods of internal purification in Hatha Yoga. In Sanskrit, ‘Kapal’ means the skull and ‘Bhati’ means to shine or illuminate. Kapalbhati cleans the cranial sinuses and hence the name. Some include Kapalbhati as one of the Pranayama, but in the classic yogic text Hatha Yoga Pradeepika and Gheranda Samhita, it is classified under the Shatkarmas or the purification techniques.

Kapalbhati is a breathing technique where rapid inhalation and exhalation is done. The exhalation (or Rechaka) is forceful and rapid, while the inhalation (or Puraka) is normal. Holding of breath (or Kumbhaka) is not done in Kapalbhati (except when practiced along with the three Bandhas). Only inhalation and exhalation is practiced. Exhalation is the main part of Kapalbhati. The forceful exhalation throws out the stale air from the lungs and the deep inhalation increases the oxygen content in the blood. It has the effect of purifying the nerves and the pranic nadis. It also removes excess of Kapha (one of the three Doshas in Ayurveda) from the body.

Kapalbhati has to be practiced in a very steady posture. Padmasana, Siddhasana and Vajrasana can be used with hands resting on the knees. These asanas are most suited to maintain the posture during the rapid breathing motion. During the practice, every part of the body vibrates and it is difficult to maintain the posture unless it is properly locked into position.

In normal breathing, inhalation is the active process while exhalation is passive. In Kapalbhati this is reversed. The abdominal muscles and the diaphragm are used to forcefully exhale the air. The abdominal muscles forcefully move inwards towards the diaphragm thereby throwing the air out. The inhalation is done in a passive relaxed way to fill the lungs with fresh air. This is practiced without any gap between two respirations.

All pranayama practices should be learned under the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. Also, if you have any medical condition, one should consult the doctor before taking up the practice. Kapalbhati should not be practiced by those suffering from heart ailments, high blood pressure, stroke or epilepsy. Those with ulcers should do it with caution. If you had any recent surgery of the thorax and abdomen, you should avoid the practice.

How to do Kapalbhati Pranayama?

  1. Kapalbhati has to be practiced on an empty stomach. Early morning is the best time for the practice. In the evening also one can practice, if there is a gap of about 4 hours after the last meal.
  2. To do Kapalbhati, sit in a steady posture. Padmasana, Siddhasana or Vajrasana are the most suited.
  3. Place the hands on the knees and breathe normally.
  4. Relax the whole body and make sure the spine is straight.
  5. Now, breathe in and out rapidly, with exhalation being forceful. The inhalation should be passive and normal. During exhalation the belly goes inside towards the thorax, forcing out the air from the lungs. Inhalation is done with relaxation to fill the lungs again with fresh air.
  6. Initially one can start with 11 rounds. Later increase it to 60 rounds in one minute. Each inhalation and exhalation should take just one second. Subsequently, with enough practice, you can increase the speed to 120 rounds per minute. Here, each inhalation and exhalation takes only half a second. Increasing the speed beyond this may not be useful as the breathing will become very shallow.
  7. After the number of rounds, relax and breathe normally, till the breathing rate comes back to normal. The relaxation period can be roughly between 30 seconds to a minute.
  8. Repeat this process about 3 times in the initial stages. For example, if you are practicing at a rate of 60 rounds per minute, then you would have completed total of 180 rounds (with gap in between after every 60 rounds, for relaxation).  This completes one sitting. One may have multiple sittings – one in the morning and one in the evening.

Practice of Kapalbhati with the three Bandhas

Advanced practitioners can practice Kapalbhati along with the three Bandhas. The three Bandhas are the three locks – Moola Bandha (the perineum lock), Uddhiyana Bandha (the abdominal lock) and Jalandhara Bandha (chin Lock). This is also called Tri-Bandha or Maha Bandha.

  1. In this version, after 60 rounds (or 120 rounds) do a deep and forceful exhalation. Hold the breath.
  2. Simultaneously perform the three locks – Moola Bandha , Uddhiyana Bandha and Jalandhara Bandha, while holding the breath outside (also called Bahya Kumbhaka).
  3. Remain in this position for as long as you are comfortable. One can hold the breath outside for just few seconds in the beginning stages. As one progresses one can increase it to about one minute. Later on, one may even increase it up to two minutes. Only advanced practitioners can reach the Bahya Kumbhaka of two minutes. This is dangerous if there is no proper guidance. Always take the help of an advanced yoga instructor before you try it.
  4. While holding the breath, one can meditate on the void at the eyebrow center.
  5. Release the three Bandhas and inhale deeply. Do few deep inhalations and exhalations, till breathing comes back to normal. Then perform the next round.

Benefits of Kapalbhati Pranayama

  1. Kapalbhati cleans the cranial sinuses and can relieve cerebral thrombosis.
  2. It purifies the nerves and the pranic channels.
  3. Excess of Kapha (one of the Doshas in Ayurveda) is removed from the body.
  4. Kapalbhati gives a clear mind and helps to control thoughts.
  5. The word ‘Kapala’ means skull and ‘Bhati’ means to illumine. This practice adds luster to the face.
  6. The Hatha Yoga Pradeepika claims that all impurities of the body can be removed by practice of Kapalbhati.
  7. Kapalbhati is the best practice available to oxygenate the blood.
  8. It helps to remove abdominal fat and is an excellent practice for obesity.
  9. It strengthens the abdominal muscles.
  10. The practice of Kapalbhati helps to regulate the breathing mechanism. It prepares the body and mind to take up advanced practices of Pranayama.