Kapalabhati is one of the most basic forms of Yogic breathing (or pranayama). It’s a method of cleansing the entire respiratory system, and is one of six primary purification processes (called Kriyas) in the yogic system of bodily cleansings (Shatkarma). Kapalabhati is great to do on its own, but it’s often practiced just before Anuloma Pranayama at the beginning of a hatha yoga session. (See my Guide to Anuloma Pranayama.)
In the simplest explanation, it’s a reversal of the typical way of breathing, since the emphasis is on the exhalation. In Kapalabhati, you’ll exhale more air than during usual breathing, which will help cleanse the respiratory system, as well as balance and energize the the Nadis and chakras.
Here’s how to perform one round of Kapalabhati:
- Sit in Sukhasana (i.e., cross-legged), Lotus position, Vajrasana, or another comfortable position.
- Take two regular breaths (inhale and exhale).
- Inhale deeply, slowly, and passively.
- As you exhale, quickly contract the muscles in the abdomen, so that the diaphragm is raised. Let out all of the air with an audible breath. Don’t move the chest, only the abdomen. This process is called Rechaka.
- Continue for 21 total breath cycles. Try to let your inhales be silent and passive, by simply relaxing your muscles so that air flows into the lungs. Each time, the emphasis should be on the complete exhale. This way of natural inhalation is called Pooraka.
- To finish, inhale fully and hold in the breath as long as possible.
- Exhale fully and slowly.
- Start with three rounds of Kapalabhati (21 breath cycles), and over time move up to doing 60 breaths each round, and doing more rounds. Each inhale-exhale should be short — as you progress, try to make them less than one second each.
The word Kapalabhati (pronounced KAH-pah-lah-BAH-tee) means an exercise for “shining skull”: “kapal” means skull (and everything in it), and “bhati” means shining or illuminating. It does this by cleaning out any stale air that’s in your lower lungs, while helping you take in fresh air. This Kriya also will clear out your sinuses, increase the amount of oxygen in your body, improve your concentration, and clear your mind. It also improves circulation, cleanses the liver and heart, and tones the abdomen. The full name for this practice is Vatakrama Kapalabhati.
On a spiritual level, doing Kapalabhati will help awaken the Kundalini power that lies at the base of the spine.