Kapalabhati breathing, called the Skull Polishing Breath, is an invigorating breathing technique. This active breathing technique is used to bring awareness to the abdomen and to invigorate energy in the body. Think of it as a double shot espresso in the realm of breath techniques.
Some of the effects of this breathing are:
- Cleans the nasal passages and opens the sinuses (keep a tissue handy)
- Strengthens the abdominals
- Oxygenates the blood
- Helps facilitate full exchange of oxygen in the lungs
- Generates introversion at the close of the practice (this part takes some time to cultivate)
The mechanics of this are straight forward but will take a little time and practice to feel comfortable.
- Sit or lie comfortably with the spine lengthened but not rigid.
- Begin with a few (or several, whatever is needed today) rounds of Ujjayi and/or Dhirgha breathing to center yourself and start to bring your awareness to your body.
- Beginners can start by placing one hand on the solar plexus (just below the sternum)
- Seal your lips and gently inhale through your nose
- Picture an insect on the tip of your nose and contract your abdomen to force the air out of your nose like you are trying to blow the insect away.
- Relax the abs and let the inhale just happen on its own
- Repeat the forceful exhale/passive inhale cycle. The first few times, keeping the count to 15-20 rounds to get the feel of the breathing technique might be enough. If you feel dizzy or light headed, stop and return to normal breathing immediately.
- With a deep, intentional inhale return to normal breathing.
- At this point you can choose to go another round, or sit in meditation for a few minutes to observe the impact this breathing has on your body and your emotions.
One of my favorite ways to vary the effects of this technique is to change the speed and/or intensity of my exhale. Faster or more forceful exhales have a different impact when compared to slower more relaxed exhalations. I encourage you to play around with this breath technique by changing those aspects and make a mental note of the impact and situations where you would want to encourage that reaction.
Some precautions and contraindications to be aware of:
- Irritation of the throat or sinuses
- Digestive irritation
- Menstruation time; be aware of how you feel after. For some there aren’t any issues, for others it can heighten sensitivity to cramping.
- Recent surgery in the abdominal or chest/lung area
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
It’s been my experience that this breathing technique is generally not practiced in a class outside of the sitting position. However, given the energizing capabilities of this technique, I layer this breath into postures. I find that kapalabhati breathing supports intense holding postures by both energizing the body and calming the mind.
Try it for yourself and see. I recommend Warrior II (Virabhdrasana II) as a great first posture for this experiment. Give yourself plenty of time in the posture and enough time after you come out to integrate whatever may come up for you.