What the Heck is Kapalabhati?

Posted by: on Dec 25, 2013 | 1 Comment
What the Heck is Kapalabhati?
image from @jkrocket

The old yogis were more that a little bit obsessive about purity (shauca). As you might remember from the Yoga Sutra, purity, both physical and psychological, is one of the five behavioral observances (niyama) and absolutely de rigueur as a preliminary to meditation practice.

Just as a river’s current is slowed and eventually dammed by the build-up of silt in its bed, so the yogis believe the nadis, the network of subtle pranic “currents” that criss-cross our body from head to toes, get obstructed by the various toxins we absorb and accumulate as we go about our daily lives. This greatly reduces the energy we have available for our self-transformative efforts and requires a dredging project to get things flowing smoothly again.

But there’s purity, and then there’s purity. To us a shower and a good tooth scrubbing usually suffices for everyday cleanliness, but for the yogis that’s only scratching the surface, literally and figuratively. So along with a closely regulated diet (mitahara), which assures the purity of the food they eat, every nook and cranny of the body has to be cleaned out. I won’t go into details here, I’ll just note the program they developed to address this need is called the “six actions” (shad karma), which is a bit misleading. Actually three of the six “actions” name categories, so in all there are 21 different practices, the most, 13, coming under the rubric of “washing” (dhauti; you can read about them all in Gheranda Samhita, 1.12-59).

Kapalabhati, literally “skull-brightener” (also known as bhalabhati, “forehead-brightener”), is one of the categories, it includes three exercises, one using the breath, the other two water. Of the latter two, water is either sucked through the nose and expelled through the mouth, or vice versa. This second technique is said to transform the practitioner into Kama, the Hindu Eros (though presumably not while water is dripping out of his nose).

The third variant of traditional Kapalabhati is substantially different from its modern incarnation, at least as it’s described in Gheranda Samhita. According to Gheranda, breath is inhaled and exhaled quickly through alternate nostrils. Nowadays the nostrils aren’t typically closed off, and only the exhales are short and sharp, while the inhales are passive, somewhat longer “rebounds.” This effectively reverses the usual roles of the breath, the exhales now quick and active, the inhales slightly longer and receptive.

I want to emphasize that Kapalabhati is NOT the “Bellows” (bhastrika), sometimes called the “breath of fire,” and while the former is an excellent breathing exercise for just about anyone, the latter should only be attempted under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Why do kapalabhati? The Gheranda Samhita says it balances “phlegm” (kapha, 1.56), the Bihar yoga school says that it “invigorates the entire brain and the centers responsible for subtler perception and insight” (Prana, 183), and “strengthens the nervous system and tones the digestive system” (Asana 398).

Sit in sukhasana (Easy Pose), vajrasana (Diamond Pose), or virasana (Hero Pose). Make a fist with one hand, wrap the second hand around it, and lay the fisted hands in your lap. Then sharply “pump” the fist once against your LOWER belly, diagonally up and into the torso, just above the pubis. Feel how this expels the breath from your lungs, then allow the “rebound” of the belly to “suck in” the following inhale. Do this a few times, with a few seconds separately each pump, to get a sense of the mechanics of the exercise. Then begin to pick up the pace, and run up to about 20 to 30 repetitions in a minute or so. With regular practice, you can increase both the number and speed of the repetitions (it’s helpful to pace yourself with a metronome).

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1 Comment

  1. dvt
    December 6, 2013

    I could use some dredging…