Let’s begin with an experiment. Read through it first, then give it a try. Begin by inhaling, and then purse your lips, leaving only a small opening at the center. Next, exhale and try to force your breath out through this narrow opening. As you do this you will feel your abdomen tighten as it pushes air through the small passageway. Now suddenly open your lips as you continue to breathe out. You will feel a burst, almost a “pop,” of air rush from your lungs as your abdomen lunges inward. Repeat this a few times until it becomes easy. The forceful exhalation you are making is the result of powerful contractions of the abdominal muscles, some of the strongest muscles of your body. Forceful exhalations are rare in daily life. But there are moments when we do control the interplay between the abdominal muscles and the outgoing stream of breath. We blow out candles on a birthday cake, play a musical instrument, inflate balloons, blow hair away from our eyes, and speed up the drying process of paints and glues with varieties of exhalations. And if a gnat were to fly into one nostril, a sudden burst of air would be our first attempt to send it packing.
Kapalabhati treats the yoga practitioner to a topsy-turvy view of breathing.
Among the many breathing practices found in yoga, most emphasize muscular control in inhalation, not exhalation. A unique breathing exercise called kapalabhati reverses this familiar pattern. In kapalabhati the exhalation is active, with inhalation playing a passive role. Kapalabhati treats the yoga practitioner to a topsy-turvy view of breathing—a focus that is initially energizing, rather than calming; cleansing and heating, rather than cooling.
Cleansing and Energizing
“Kapalabhati” is a compound word. “Kapala” means “skull”; “bhati” means “to shine or to be lustrous.” This practice is said to “make the skull shine” by cleansing the nasal passageways and sinuses, and ultimately supplying the brain with a fresh supply of oxygen-rich blood. It also cleanses the throat and lungs and stimulates the abdominal muscles and organs.
Kapalabhati is one of six practices (shat kriyas) taught in hatha yoga for internal cleansing. Although it is not a formal pranayama practice—there is no retention of the breath involved—it is included in any discussion about yogic breathing exercises and plays an important role in breath training. It leads directly to the practice of bhastrika, the bellows breath, of which it is a milder variation for those who find bhastrika too strenuous.
It is said that kapalabhati has no equal as an exercise for enhancing oxygenation of the blood. Thus it renews body tissues and helps to arrest old age. It is said to correct ailments arising from coldness. It is beneficial for nerves, circulation, and metabolism. From a yogic perspective it is a practice of great spiritual benefit. It assists in purifying the subtle energy currents, or nadis. It helps in cleansing the body of kapha, and ultimately leads to a gradual awakening of energies along the spinal nadi, sushumna.
The Basics of Kapalabhati
The essence of kapalabhati is a steady repetition of forceful exhalations followed by slightly slower, passive inhalations. Each outward breath is propelled by a powerful thrust of the abdomen. Following this thrust the abdomen is quickly relaxed and the breath flows back into the lungs, recoiling from the force of the exhalation. The inhalation is smooth and effortless. This prepares the respiratory system for the next strike of the abdomen, which again drives air up and out through the nose. Each cycle of exhalation and inhalation is counted as one breath and a prescribed number of repetitions is completed depending on the capacity of the student. All breaths are through the nose.
The essence of kapalabhati is a steady repetition of forceful exhalations followed by slightly slower, passive inhalations.
Details of this practice will be discussed further on in the article. If possible it will help you to see and hear the practice performed by an experienced teacher. The correct practice of kapalabhati produces a clear, crisp sound of breath as it leaves the nostrils. There is no interference with the sound as the air passes through the throat, and the cheeks remain relaxed rather than puffing out.
As in all breathing practices, there are cautions. Kapalabhati is not to be practiced by persons with high or low blood pressure or with coronary heart disease. Those who have problems with their eyes (e.g., glaucoma), ears (e.g., fluid in the ears), or a bleeding nose should not practice this exercise.
Always practice on an empty stomach, two or more hours after eating. Stop if you experience pain in your side, if you feel dizzy, or if you are unable to maintain a steady rhythm. Most importantly, pay full attention to your capacity. This practice will build stamina if it is allowed to develop over time. Whenever signs of fatigue develop, end your practice.
Kapalabhati is most effective when the abdominal muscles are strong. A number of yoga practices can help in developing awareness of these muscles and strengthening them if that is necessary. If you haven’t already been doing them, you might try adding the following to your asana practice:
• the stomach lift (uddiyana bandha) to relax, control, and coordinate the movements of your abdominal muscles and diaphragm
• agni sara to build strength, endurance, and the ability to contract and relax the abdomen at will
• any variety of seated forward bends and leg-lifting poses to build muscular strength in the abdomen
Kapalabhati must be practiced in a seated pose. It is important to maintain a strong posture during the practice, especially when the strokes of the exhalation become more powerful. Make sure that the head, neck, and trunk are erect and steady. The best posture is siddhasana, with the feet drawn into the locked positions, but this is a difficult posture and the practice of kapalabhati can evolve for a long time before such a steady base becomes essential. Until then choose the seated pose that is most comfortable for you, and use that same posture every time you do the practice.
The abdominal wall must be controlled in the performance of kapalabhati. During the exhalation the abdomen is forcefully contracted. Immediately after the contraction it is quickly and fully relaxed. Then the inhalation can occur of its own accord. It is important to remember that (1) the exhalation is produced by an active inward thrusting of the abdomen, and (2) the inhalation that follows is entirely passive. If the abdomen is relaxed quickly after the strong exhalation, air will flow into the lungs to replace what has been driven out without any effort of the diaphragm.
Beginners commonly experience some problems with kapalabhati. The most problematic of these is that in the effort to create a forceful exhalation, students often use the chest muscles, or even the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and face. The result is that the sitting posture is distorted, the face scrunches up in effort, shoulders hunch, the chest collapses, and sometimes the whole body shakes. And despite all this effort (actually, because of it), the exhalation loses its crispness and speed.
The exhalation in kapalabhati is created only by the inward-thrusting abdomen, not by any accessory muscles. By observing your breathing carefully, you can easily achieve a clear sense of this movement. Try the following experiment:
The exhalation in kapalabhati is created only by the inward-thrusting abdomen, not by any accessory muscles.
Sit erect and breathe normally. You will notice that in addition to the expansion of the area at the base of the rib cage and upper abdomen your chest also rises and falls slightly with each breath. This normal thoracic movement is thought to be responsible for about 20 percent of the air moving in and out of the lungs in a sitting posture.
There are actually two sets of muscles involved in the movement. The external intercostals, lying on the outer surface of the ribs, raise the rib cage slightly during inhalation, expanding the lungs. The internal intercostals, lying on the inner surface of the ribs, can be used if necessary to contract the rib cage and increase the force of exhalation. Normally, however, they are not very active.
If you inhale slowly and hold your breath, you will feel your body tensing slightly in the chest to maintain the expansion of your rib cage. The tension you feel is in the external intercostal muscles, which are now holding the rib cage up.
Except for the fact that you are not retaining your breath, you will be expanding the rib cage in precisely the same way during the practice of kapalabhati. First you will slowly inhale, lifting the rib cage slightly; then, holding this slight tension in the rib cage, you will thrust the abdomen toward the spine, creating a rapid exhalation. Just as rapidly, you will relax the abdomen—not the rib cage—so that air automatically flows into the lungs again. This sets up the lungs for a second thrust of the abdomen, and so on. During this entire process the rib cage is simply suspended in place. The head, neck, and shoulders remain firmly resting. Only the abdomen moves.
Try this at a slow speed. After you have the knack of it, you can breathe more quickly. The key is to feel the freedom of the abdominal muscles to thrust and relax, thrust and relax, over and over again.
The diaphragm is a passive player, jostled but not excited by the powerful movements above and below it.
The action of the diaphragm during all this is a little more complicated—and not really necessary—to describe. Simply remember that during kapalabhati there is no effort made during the inhalation to speed the breath along. Relax the abdomen and the breath will flow in. The diaphragm is a passive player, jostled but not excited by the powerful movements above and below it.
Picking Up Speed
After a little practice, when the movements of the breath seem comfortable, you must establish a rhythmic pace for the exhalations. A good starting rate is about one exhalation per second. The length of the inhalation is about three times the exhalation so you may find that the words “one potato, two potato, three . . .” actually match the lengths of the two breaths quite closely. Increase the speed gradually. An experienced practitioner will do this practice at the rate of 120 exhalations in a minute, or two per second. But don’t be in a hurry to get there. It is important not to sacrifice the vigor of the abdominal contractions merely for the sake of going faster. And whatever the speed, there are no pauses between the breaths.
Establishing a Practice
To establish a practice of kapalabhati, keep three objectives in mind:
• build abdominal strength to create forceful contractions
• gradually increase the speed of the breaths to the desired pace
• gradually increase the number of repetitions in each round
The practice is done in rounds. In the beginning 11 expulsions of air constitute one round. Usually three rounds are completed at one sitting, although you can do less than three. Pause between rounds and breathe normally to rest and relax your nervous system. It may take from 30 to 60 seconds until you feel comfortable and ready to continue.
Practice three rounds of kapalabhati twice a day—usually morning and late afternoon or evening is best. Because these breaths can be energizing, you may prefer to practice in the early evening rather than just before bedtime. In the context of a full yoga practice, kapalabhati comes at the end of your posture routine and before alternate nostril breathing and meditation, to reduce physical and mental lethargy and to keep the mind alert and refreshed.
Increase the number of repetitions practiced each day by increasing the number of expulsions in each round. For example, you might start with 11 breaths in each round. After a few weeks, increase this to 22 expulsions in each round. Continue to gradually increase by 11 breaths until you have reached a total of 121 breaths per round (11 times 11). Two sittings of three rounds at this number is considered a full practice.
Kapalabhati is a breathing exercise with connections to many systems of yoga practice. It is taught in the classical hatha yoga system as a cleansing exercise for the purification of the lungs, air passageways, and subtle nerve currents, or nadis. In the context of pranayama, it is a preparation for the even more vigorous practice of bhastrika. Because of its calming effect on the respiratory center, a few rounds are also done before beginning any more advanced pranayama practices. In the system of kundalini yoga, the force of the abdomen striking the lower centers of the spine has an awakening effect.
Even a limited practice of this unique breathing exercise is helpful. Start slowly and see if you find it beneficial for you.