Kapalabathi breathing exercise: abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing.
In Sanskrit ‘Kapala’ means skull & ‘Bathi’ means shines. The term Kapalabathi means shining skull. It is said that through the regular practice of this form of yogic breathing your skull will shine & glow with good health & well-being. The skull actually means the nasal passage through which the air passes in and out.
Kapalabathi is one of the Pranayama breathing exercises, however it is also considered as one of the ‘kriyas’ or cleansing exercises in yoga, a form of purification. It’s therefore imperative to start your day with the cleansing of the nasal passages (see the post about jala neti) before starting your Pranayama.
How to practice Kapalabathi?
It consists of a series of short and active exhalations, alternated with passive, relaxed inhalations. The intense expulsions of the stale air from the lungs increase the uptake of oxygen into the blood, which can be felt especially in the brain. Therefore Kapalabathi is an excellent method to improve your concentration.
Start by sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back straight from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Place your hands with the index and thumb connected, hand palms open to the sky on your thighs. Close your eyes gently and keep the chin parallel to the floor. Keep your mouth closed. Take a couple of slow, conscious breaths. Inhale: fill the belly with air, exhale: release the belly.
Inhale and start: pull the belly button in to the spine and exhale forcefully through the nose as if you are blowing a fly off your nose. You only move your belly; the rest of your body stays immobile. Release the belly (inhalation will happen automatically. Repeat this in a rhythmic way up to 10 times (if you are a beginner). Then exhale completely, breathe a couple of times deeply and then inhale 75% of your lungs’ capacity to retain the breath comfortably. Focus your mind on the point of light in between your eye brows and try to not feel any pressure in the lungs. Recharge your body (hold the breath for 20-60 seconds). Exhale completely, breathe a couple of times on your own rhythm, keep the focus and concentration. The time for a forced exhalation and a passive inhalation should be about 2 seconds. REPEAT 2 more times including the retention.
Each round consists of 30-80 ‘pumps’. The retention can last until 90 seconds.
It’s very important to get the ‘pumping’ technique right in the Kapalabathi. Practice by putting one hand on your belly and exhale forcefully through the nose, the belly is drawn into the spine. You move ONLY the belly; the rest of the body stays immobile. Release the belly and automatically you’ll inhale. The inhalation takes 1 second, the exhalation takes 1 second.
After the 3rd retention, stay seated comfortably in the cross-legged position and breathes on your own rhythm, observe the sensations in your body and mind after this cleansing breathing exercise.
Extra info for beginners
When you first begin with Kapalabathi you might feel dizzy, this can be caused by hyperventilation. If this happens, stop, lie on your back and relax. When you feel OK again, analyse what might have been done wrong that caused the hyperventilation:
- Your chest or collar bones moves: check that you only move your abdomen during both exhalations & inhalations.
- Your abdomen is not moving when you exhale: check that your abdomen is actively contracting and moving inwards every time your exhale.
- You are inhaling too deeply or you are actively pushing out your abdomen: inhale passively.
- You are pumping too fast: reduce the speed to 2 seconds for one exhalation and inhalation.
When to practice?
Practice this exercise in the morning, make it a ritual, it activates the nervous system so it’s best not practiced in the evening.
Kapalabathi is not only a cleansing exercise to purify the lungs of stale air that has accumulated there during the night, but it increases the capacity of the lungs, stimulates blood circulation and gives a gentle massage to the heart. Moreover, as you use your abdominal muscles to force out the air, it also tones the belly.
The complete illustrated book of yoga, Sivananda Yoga Teacher’ manual, YOGA, your home practice companion (Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre)
===>>> Second Pranayama (breathing) exercise: Anuloma Viloma or Alternate Nostril Breathing