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Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) Pranayama

One of the prominent yogis from India, Yogiraj Dr. Om Prakash ji, who was on a US visit last summer, presented a series of yoga sessions at the Hindu Bhavan Cultural Hall in Morrisville, NC. He highlighted the value of pranayama (breathing practices) in general as an integral component of any yoga routine. However, he specifically emphasized the importance of Kapaalabhaati and called it "sarvaroga nivarini" which literally means ‘(a practice) that can heal all types of ailments’. When practiced regularly under proper guidance it can bring about radiant health and provide other benefits at a more subtle level. Another very famous yogi from India, Swami Ramdev, who has shot to fame via his daily TV programs, calls it ‘the Sanjeevani’ which is an herb that can supposedly bring even a dead body back to life. This is based on a famous parable in Ramayana – "When Lakshmana was wounded, Hanuman flew to the Himalayas for the medicinal herb Sanjeevani. Unable to identify the Sanjeevani, he wrested the entire mountain from the land and carried it to Lakshmana". Based on these strong statements from prominent yogis of today, it is easy to see why it is important to include this practice in your daily yoga routine.

In the classical Hatha Yoga text "Hatha Yoga Pradeepika", Kapaalabhaati is described as one of the six cleansing kriyas (Shatkarma). However, because it involves manipulation of the breath and offers great benefits, it is widely practiced as a part of the pranayama techniques.

Not sure how to pronounce kapAlabhAti? The ‘A’ represents a long vowel sound, somewhat like the ‘o’ in ‘mom’ (American) or the ‘a’ in ‘fast’ (British).

Contraindications

Before I describe the technique it is important to understand that people with the following conditions should not practice kapaalabhaati – cardiac problems, nasal congestion, severe cold, severe headache, abdominal ulcers, hernia. People with high blood pressure should either refrain from it or practice a milder version of the technique. Pregnant women and those who have had recent abdominal surgery should also refrain from this practice. One cautionary note – practice kapaalabhaati on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning. However, if your schedule only allows you to practice it during the day/evening, then you should give a gap of at least 2.5 hours after eating a meal.

The Technique

Now let us turn our attention to the technique itself and learn how to practice it. Sit in any comfortable position with the spine erect. You can sit either cross-legged or in "vajrasana" (the diamond pose) or in any position that you feel comfortable in. If you have problem sitting on the floor, you can even sit in a chair, preferably with the spine erect and not resting against the back of the chair. Breathe normally for a few breaths. Once composed, you can begin by first exhaling and then inhaling half-way. First, exercise the diaphragm by exhaling suddenly and quickly through both nostrils while simultaneously drawing the abdominal muscles inwards. The brisk and vigorous exhalation produces a "puffing" sound. Allow the abdominal muscles to relax at the end of exhalation and let the inhalation happen automatically and passively. The rate of expulsion will vary from one individual to the next depending upon capacity. On the average, one can maintain a rate between 70 to 120 expulsions per minute (remember the normal breathing rate is 12 to 15 breaths per minute). It is important to understand that you should not strain or become uncomfortable during the practice. If you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable in any way, it means that you are trying too hard or trying to breathe too forcefully. At this point stop the practice and sit quietly for some time before trying it again. Start with only 20-30 expulsions per round and try three rounds. Over a period of time, with practice, you can increase the number of breaths per round. A little rest can be taken in between the rounds according to your convenience. Throughout the exercise, the chest should be kept still without expansion or contraction and the shoulders should remain steady and relaxed. Only the diaphragm is used for breathing and not the upper chest.

An Alternate Approach

Some of you might have some difficulty getting the technique right in the beginning. In that case, you can try this alternate approach. Put both your hands on your belly, just a little below the navel. Keep the belly soft. Now push your abdomen in with your hands and at the same time try to throw all the air out of the lungs in a forceful, brisk manner. At the end of the exhalation, allow the inhalation to happen passively. Repeat the pushing with the hands accompanied by expulsion of air and then passive inhalation. When this rhythm seems to become natural, you may try to remove the hands from the belly and continue with the practice.

Benefits of Kapaalabhaati

  • As mentioned above, Kapalabhati is traditionally considered one of the cleansing techniques in yoga. One of its main benefits comes in the form of movement of metabolic waste from all the tissues in the body toward the lungs where they are eliminated.
  • Kapaalabhaati helps clear mucus from the lungs. As air moves into the throat, it travels down the superior portion of the airway called the trachea. The walls of this single tubed airway consist of several layers, of which the innermost layer is lined with cilia cells. Cilia are microscopic, grass-like projections that continually beat and propel mucus that traps dust particles, bacteria and debris. This mucus is propelled by the cilia toward the pharynx where it is released by coughing or swallowing. Smoking inhibits and ultimately destroys cilia. When the cilia function, as described above, is lost, coughing is the only method of moving accumulated mucus out of the lungs. Because of the cleansing effect on the lungs, this practice is recommended for people who suffer from respiratory ailments like bronchitis, asthma, tuberculosis etc.
  • The force of the exhalations in Kapaalabhaati acts further on debris-filled mucus in the lungs and trachea. This additional force works with the cilia and helps move the mucus more readily up the airway against gravity. Coughing after Kapaalabhaati helps in releasing these impurities. In addition to removing mucus, Kapaalabhaati also helps expel more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs compared to normal breathing. The powerful exhalation also helps increase the flow of blood in the lung tissues as well as throughout the body.
  • Improves the health of the lungs, bronchial system and the associated organs. It helps in curing the diseases of the lungs like asthma and bronchitis.
  • The energetic expulsions in Kapalabhati help increase cardiovascular activity and increasing the heart rate. This helps in improving the health of the heart muscles and tissues.
  • The rapid and forceful movement of the abdominal muscles in Kapaalabhaati gives a massage to the internal organs. With each vigorous exhalation, the abdominal walls draw inwards applying pressure on internal organs, including the lungs, pancreas, intestines, the gall bladder etc. This pressure helps increase the circulation of blood flow into and out of abdominal organs. This massage also sends a direct pressure into the digestive system helping move remaining food and fecal matter through the intestines and colon. Kapaalabhaati helps in reducing the incidence of constipation. With this increased circulation of blood and material in the internal organs comes a release of toxins as well.
  • At a subtler level, it impacts the Navel Center (Manipura Chakra) and helps in countering some of the negative propensities associated with this chakra – jealousy, shame, fear, disgust, delusion, and sadness.
  • Literally, the word kapaalabhaati means ‘skull shining’ (kapaala = skull; bhaati = shining/polishing). Regular practice is supposed to clear and calm the mind and over a period of time, one develops a healthy natural glow on the face.
  • It also brings about the state of ‘pratyahara’ (sense withdrawal) which prepares the mind for meditation.

 

36 comments to Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) Pranayama

  • […] and should be done by experienced yoga practitioners only who already have an ongoing practice of Kapalabhati (breath of […]

  • Vijen Sharma Bhinday

    Namaskaar saa _/\_,
    Its amazing, i use these tips, wonderfully i got much more benifits with this Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) Pranayama. I greatfull to you sir…. Yogas means positive energy..
    Dhanyawad saa :-) _/\_

    • admin

      Thanks, Vijen, for your kind words. Could you please amplify on what benefits you have felt through the practice of Kapalabhati? It could be very helpful to other readers of this blog.
      – Subhash

  • Venkat

    Is Kapaal Bhati harmful to heart ? Ihave had 2 major heart surgeries.
    My both heart valves are mechanical and have irregular heart beat and have defibrillator installed. Can I do kapaal Bhati ?

    Thank you for your advice

    • Dear Venkat,
      In your situation, I would suggest that you don’t practice any vigorous or intense form of KB where you breathe out very forcefully. You may start by experimenting with maybe 10-15 mild expulsions of breath and see how you feel. You may want to check with a local yoga expert who may be able to observe your progress as you practice a very mild form of KB. I wish you all the best.

  • vaibhav

    hiiiiiiiiii sir i am suffering from chronic constipation , and under weight problem .. please suggest me ,

    • For constipation I recommend practicing the Laghu Shankha prakshalana on a regular basis. If you need instructions, I’ll be glad to send you the link. Once you take care of the constipation problem, we can look at the under-weight issue separately.

  • seema

    will kapalbhati help reduce tummy area…

  • Dear Seema,
    Yes, Kapalabhati is definitely supposed to help in reducing the tummy area. However, my strong recommendation is to supplement KB with proper diet (low fat, no fried food, high in nutrition) and some other exercise (brisk walks, jogging etc).

  • Arun

    Sir,
    I have been suffering from severe GERD,indigestion,occasional constipation and abdominal ulcers along with anxiety and mild depression for many years . I went through a thorough body cleansing (panchakarma) last year and at the end of it I have been advised the following pranayama to be done everyday.

    1) Nadi shodana—- 12 times
    2) Anuloma Viloma—- 12 times
    3) chandra shodana—- 12 times
    4) Sheetkari—- 12 times
    5) Shitali—– 12 times
    6) A variation of Sheetkari where I roll the toungue upwards and breath through the nose —12 times

    In addition to that I have been advised by some of my friend to do bhastrika (with variation 2) and kapalbhati for two five minutes everyday .

    I would like to know if I can do kapalabhati with my set of health issues.

    Also can bhastrika and sheetkari, sheetali be performed together in the morning

    Please let me know

    Regards,
    Arun

    • Dear Arun,
      I am sorry to learn of all the stomach related issues that you are having. I certainly hope that the pranayama routine that you have been recommended will help you. In my opinion, as long as you don’t have high BP which fluctuates, you should be able to practice both kapalabhati and bhastrika. Because these two practices generate heat and energy in the body, it is recommended that you do these at the beginning of your practice. I usually like to finish the pranayama practice with Anuloma Viloma.
      Wishing you all the best,
      Subhash

  • Dear Respected Shri Subhashji,

    Thanks for presenting article on Kapaalbhatti in a simple manner even a layman can practice without much difficulty.

    I have been doing this Pranayama for the 15 years. That may one of the reasons I am able to maintain myself to a reasonable extent at the age of 66 years. For the past one year I have been getting tired after walking for about 30 minutes. I think if one has to maintain 100% physical fitness, mind control is absolutely necessary, which is root cause for all diseases.

    Regards and best wishes,

    Ramani

  • Muralidhar.K

    Hello sir,

    I donot know why in my case pranayamas are being opposite to me becoz if i start doing pranayama like kapalbhati or bastrika, i donot know the Mucus is formed and cough starts with it, so is there any yoga to me which can destroy my cough and mucus problem through yoga? plz send me the reply.

    • Dear Muralidhar, I think you should try the practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher to make sure your technique is right. If you still develop coughing, you may need to hold off on these two practices. Also, you may want to do very few rounds to start with and see at what point you develop coughing. Focus on other breathing techniques to build greater lung capacity and also cleanse your sinuses etc. You may be able to resume kapalabhati after some time without any negative effect. All the best.

  • krishnan

    Dear sir i heared that epileptic patients should not do kapalabhati .Is it true. please clear it. Thanks in advance.

    • Hello Krishnan,
      Even though I have no direct experience teaching kapalabhati to someone with epilepsy, I have heard the same caution that you mention – that is, it is best to avoid kapalabhati if you are epileptic.

  • James

    Hi Subhash, i wanted to ask you if kapalabhati should be done with full exhalations when exhaling?

  • Shreyas

    HI Sir,

    I am practicing Kapalabhati daily for 100*5=500 times, I can feel good after the pranayama but I feel little pain/or uneasiness near my heart after doing it, I am practicing the way you have described and I am not rushing in, uneasiness lasts for 5 to 10 minutes, wanted to know is this normal or am I damaging my heart through this?
    Please advise,
    I am also practicing sarvangasana, navasana as described by you, many thanks to you, your website really helps

  • Shreyas

    Hello Sir,
    can you please reply on the below
    I am practicing Kapalabhati daily for 100*5=500 times, I can feel good after the pranayama but I feel little pain/or uneasiness near my heart after doing it, I am practicing the way you have described and I am not rushing in, uneasiness lasts for 5 to 10 minutes, wanted to know is this normal or am I damaging my heart through this?
    Please advise,
    I am also practicing sarvangasana, navasana as described by you, many thanks to you, your website really helps

    • Hello Shreyas, I cannot say that uneasiness around the heart is normal. You may feel uneasiness in the stomach area, which is normal. If your heart is otherwise perfectly normal, KB most likely will not cause any damage. If you have high BP, you may want to consult with your doctor. I would suggest to cut down the number of KB you do per round and also may be try three rounds and see how that feels.

  • Shreyas

    Hello Sir,
    can you please reply on the above

  • shreyas

    thanks a lot

  • BINIT

    DEAR SIR
    PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF EPILIPSEY IS CURED BY DOING KAPALBHATI.
    ALSO EPILIPTIC PATIENT CAN DO KAPALBHATO OR NOT.

    THANKS
    BINIT SHARMA

  • Vinod

    Hello Sir,

    As per below video a doctor says that alternate nostril kapalbhati is better than other kapabhatti techniques.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPm8M3OqVx0

    Which one do you recommend?

    I have been doing Kapalbhatti for past 6 months like described above by exhaling through both nostrils and inhalation at normal pace. I feel very energized and rejuvenated after doing Kapalbhatti for 30 minutes everyday.
    Should I continue or switch to alternate nostril kapalbhatti.

    • Hi Vinod,
      As per the video, you should do the first two set of KB through alternate nostrils and the third set through both nostrils. This seems to be a good approach and you can safely follow it.

  • Rajeev Pathak

    Dear Sir ,

    I am suffering for sinusities for the past 10 yrs , please advise should we do Kapalbhati first or Jal Neeti .

    Regards
    Rajeev Pathak

  • Vinod

    THank you sir,

    I would like to do Kapalbhatti the same way you do, since you know much more than me.
    You do it through both nostrils or as explained in video.?

  • Vinod

    Also please tell me how much time i should I do it 15 minutes or 30 minutes?

    • Vinod, typically I do KB through both nostrils only. However, about once a week, I do it through one nostril at a time and then through both. Depending upon your comfort level, feel free to do it either way. Also, I practice it usually for about 15-18 minutes. If you are not straining yourself, you can do longer duration as well.

  • Munish

    Sir,

    My question is that can I do Kapalbhatti everyday if I am comfortable doing it. Or should it be done 3-4 times a week. How many times a week you do Kapalbhatti?

  • Munish

    Sir,
    one question
    My question is that can I do Kapalbhatti everyday if I am comfortable doing it. Or should it be done 3-4 times a week. How many times a week you do Kapalbhatti?

    • Yes, Munish, KB can be done on a daily basis. Just make sure that while doing the practice, you don’t strain yourself. I myself practice it daily.