Kapalabhati means forehead shining, Kapala = skull and bhati = shining or cleaning). This is very different from our yogic breath, here we are doing a short quick sniffing breath (the opposite of how to breathe in a yoga practice!). In our yoga practice we do a steady balanced chesty sounding breath.
Air enters our 2 nostrils in 3 streams the first two streams go downward to the lungs, the third stream is a little stream that goes upward delivering oxygen to the brain. This is the stream that “sniffs” as this stream pulls the scents across our olfactory organ where we can smell them. Kapalabhati helps to propel the breath upward through this 3rd stream toward the skull where it helps to detox the brain through the glymphatics, and in the process due to the pumping action of our abs the lymphatics in the abdomen also get a massage helping them to move and detoxify as well.
During normal breathing processes you want most your air going down the 2 main streams into your lungs and only a thin stream going to your brain. Here we are pulling more air upward to than usual.
Purposeful forceful breathing helps to use all 5 lobes of the lungs and especially helps us to use the lower lobes of the lungs where we can access more oxygen rich blood; increasing oxygenation which helps with detoxification and fat burning, and increasing vascularization in the lower lobes of the lungs.
The pranayamas that use forceful breathing such as Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are particularly beneficial for our lung health; they help to clear pollution, smoke, and other irritants from our alveoli — alveoli are tiny little air exchanges sacks in our lungs, they look like a bunch of grapes hanging on a vine. When pollution or dirt sticks to them they collapse and can not effectively exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. These forceful pranayamas help to open them up. In other times they collapse momentarily; for example during sobbing or when breathing stressfully — you know when you involuntarily take a little double inhale? That’s your body re-inflating your alveoli.
Also these pranayamas improve our VO2 max, or our respiratory health — our cardiovascular system. You are breathing like you are running hard … except you’re not! This seems to bring about similar benefit due to their effects on our lung flexibility. With pranayama you get the benefits of more intense exercise without the wear and tear on your joints! Which is why in yoga philosophy it is said that as you age pranayama becomes even more important to “move energy” in your body.
Pranayama is yoga for your breathing apparatuses! What exactly are your breathing apparatuses? Your nose, throat, trachea, bronchial tubes, lungs, diaphragm, rib cage, intercostals and even your abdominals.
Basically you breathe from your nose to your navel. All these breathing apparatuses need to be flexible, one of the actions of benefit to our cardiovascular system from these pranayamas is how they stretch and strengthen all our breathing muscles. We need to have flexibility of our lungs, rib cage, diaphragm, and even our bronchial tubes — they need to be able to dilate and stretch to allow sufficient incoming air in.
With that being said, then it comes to reason stretching and expanding, filling your lungs to the brim with air helps to improve the flexibility of the bronchial tubes, lungs, diaphragm and rib cage allowing them to make more room for more air and thus more oxygen — oxygenating your entire body better.
Pay attention to your inhales as you perform this breathing exercise, as you go faster you will notice more of strengthening effect and less of a stretching effect. As a beginner its better to take this pranayama slower and allow a little more time to expand your lungs on the inhales to get the flexibility enhancements.
How to perform:
To do kapalabhati, you pump your diaphragm and abdominals sharply and quickly on the exhale and let the inhale be more passive. In a normal breath our diaphragm works on the inhale and relaxes on the exhale. Instead here, we pump the diaphragm on the exhale, which will help to strengthen your diaphragm as it’s working on both the inhale and exhale.
You can practice this by coughing — we do a similar contraction of the diaphragm when coughing — except a cough is through the mouth — we are keeping the breath through the nose here.
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth — this is Jiva Bandha. Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth during these more forceful pranayamas is important to protect your eustachian tubes.
- Take a slightly deeper inhale; exhale pump at a steady rhythm for about 30 exhales. Pace does come into play, I like a steady pace of about 15 seconds give or take, to do the 30 pumps. Some like a faster pace, and some even slower.
- If you are new to this, start with less. To progress you can increase your pumps in each set (I have seen text books recommend as many as 500! -that is a bit much for me but under certain circumstances it may have a powerful healing effect).
- Take a recovery breath or two or 5 …
- Repeat for a total of three rounds.
Kapalabhati helps to clear your mind and calm your thoughts, reducing stress. I literally feel like its sweeping debris from my brain.
Play with pace
In the ‘how to’ I recommend just a common steady pace, however sometimes play with your pace; for example I like to do 10 quite slow, after the initial relaxation of the inhale following the “blast” continue to lengthen your inhale – do this for 10 slow breaths, then slowly increase pace to slightly faster with shorter inhales for 10 breaths, then normal pace for 20-30 breath/blasts where your inhale is just passive. Take a few breaths and repeat for a total of 3 rounds. This looks like:
- 10 slow forceful exhale breath/blasts with a longer inhale
- 10 slightly faster exhaling breath/blasts shortening your inhale
- 10-20 normal pace breath/blasts just letting your inhales be passive.
- Take 5 slow normal yogic breaths and repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
To progress in this pranayama we had a inhale retention:
- Take a nice deep first inhale, exhale pump 30x with a passive inhale — just working the exhale.
- Take 1 long slow inhale
- Take 1 long slow exhale
- Take another long inhale and hold in for as long as is comfortable (no straining in pranayama!)
- Slowly exhale
- Repeat for a total of at least 3 rounds or more.
Even more advanced option:
As you do your 30 or more pumps, with your hand in vishnu mudra alternate your exhaling nostril beginning and ending of the left nostril, take your short quick inhales with both nostrils:
- Take 1 big inhale, exhale pump quickly and sharply alternating your exhales through your left and right nostril taking your short inhales with both nostrils 30-50x
- Take a big chesty inhale with both nostrils, retain your breath for 30-45 seconds, slowly exhale through your nose.
- Take 1 full inhale and exhale yoga breathing style.
- Repeat for 3 – 5 rounds total.
Working with pranayamas helps to make you aware of your breath; and in these breathing exercises you want to be aware of each breath you take! Hear each breath you take. Over time you will notice you will become more conscious of how you breathe all day long.
This in turn makes you more conscious in general — especially about your subconscious behaviors — those patterns we repeat as adults that we did when we were kids because they got us what we wanted. For example; someone who angers easy is basically an adult throwing a childlike temper tantrum because they did not get their own way — thats a subconscious behavior. Being aware of each breath you take helps you to recognize when you are falling into a subconscious behavior that is not serving you — the more conscious we become about our behaviors and why we do what we do, the more evolved we will become.
Here is a helpful handout from Banyan Botanicals on Kapalabhati.