Unlike other pranayama exercises, which have a deeply relaxing effect, kapalabhati is incredibly invigorating. I like to use it to wake me up in the morning and clear away any lingering sleepiness. It gives a certain clarity and energetic jolt that no cup of coffee can match!
Kapalabhati isn’t frequently taught in the U.S. and I only learned this practice many years into yoga when I was studying in India. My teacher said that kapalabhati would make me radiate, and I’ve continued to love this practice for its potential beauty-enhancing effects as well.
Breath of Clean(sed) Air
But kapalabhati’s real purpose in yoga is to cleanse and clear. Its forceful exhalations expel phlegm from the nasal passageways—it truly clears the sinuses. For this reason, kapalabhati holds its place as one of yoga’s shatkarma, or purification procedures. It’s the perfect preliminary practice to other pranayama that require breathing through one nostril at a time like nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and surya bhedana, which are impossible if the nostrils are blocked.
Kapalabhati is a two-part Sanskrit word. Kapal means "forehead" or "frontal lobe of the brain." Bhati means "shining." Hence, it’s referred to in English as shining skull breath. In the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika," one of the classic texts on Hatha yoga, it’s referred to as frontal brain cleansing:
“Perform exhalation and inhalation rapidly like the bellows (of a blacksmith). This is called kapalabhati and it destroys all mucous disorders” (Chapter 2, Verse 35).
Technicality of the Breath
Despite this description, kapalabhati shouldn’t be confused with bhastrika pranayama (bellows breath) or agni pran (breath of fire). In bhastrika pranayama, the inhalation and exhalation are both exaggerated and an equal length. This is done by pumping the stomach. Breath of fire is slightly more rapid and done with less force, although the inhalations and exhalations also match in length.
In kapalabhati, however, the exhalations are forceful and the inhalations passive. By vigorously and quickly drawing the abdominal muscles inward, the outbreath is quick and strong. The inhalation happens naturally and effortlessly by relaxing the abdominal muscles. Kapalbhati’s inhalations are slower and longer than exhalations, but more air is forced out than drawn in.
While beneficial, kapalbhati can be confusing for beginners as it reverses the natural breathing process. Normally, inhalations are an active phenomenon and exhalations are passive. Kapalabhati is exactly the opposite. But once it’s learned properly, it’s easy to do. (If you're a pranayama beginner, check out these techniques in Breathe Easy With These 5 Yogic Breathing Exercises.)
Even More Physical Benefits
Anyone who’s ever practiced kapalabhati will have no doubt why it’s considered a cleansing process. Kapalabhati instantly clears the sinuses; so much so that it’s necessary to keep a tissue nearby! This makes it an ideal practice to do before other pranayama. If the sinuses aren’t clear, practices like anuloma viloma pranayama are also impossible.
For this reason, kapalabhati is considered a beneficial practice in respiratory disorders. It also stimulates digestion by activating the abdominal region. It’s extremely energizing, banishing away sleepiness and fogginess (which is why it’s not to be practiced before bedtime). It’s said to cleanse the nadis: subtle channels through which prana circulates. And the exaggerated exhalations expel carbon dioxide and increases oxygen in the body.
The 6 Shatkarmas (Purification Processes)
All of these benefits make kapalabhati one of the six yogic purification processes. These shatkarma are indicated in the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" to remove excess body fat, mucus and gas before practicing pranayama. They are:
- Neti: cleansing the nasal passages through water or a sutra
- Dhauti: four practices to cleanse the digestive tract
- Nauli: a movement that strengthens the abdominal organs
- Basti: cleansing of the colon
- Trataka: focused gazing
The shatkarma were designed to cleanse away excess doshas (the vital energies described in Ayurveda as vata, pitta and kapha), eliminate toxins, improve the body’s overall functioning, allow prana to freeflow, and bring clarity. In yoga’s modern incarnation, the shatkarma are little known, but they were once considered one of the most important aspects of Hatha yoga.
Get Your Energy Kick
Unlike the other shatkarma which must be learned from an expert, kapalabhati can be learned from most qualified yoga teachers. It can be practiced after asana and before pranayama. It’s cleansing effect is quickly felt—both at the physical level as a clearing of the sinuses, and at the mental level as an awakened awareness and boost of energy. (Read on about Relieving Muscle Pain and Tension With Breath.)