Kapalabhati means “frontal brain cleansing” or “skull shining”. It is one of the six Shatkarma from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika – so it is a purification and preliminary step prior to beginning pranayama practices.
The shatkarma not only provide excellent health but also refine the body for higher work. They are exciting practices because if performed daily the results of purification tend to be very quick. Kapalabhati purifies the frontal portion of the brain by increasing blood flow. It helps expel carbon dioxide and other wastes. Excess mucus is cleared from the nasal passages and the abdominal organs get a nice massage. Noticeable improvements can be experienced by those who suffer from asthma and emphysema because the respiratory muscles are strengthened and toned through kapalabhati. Of course it should only be done at times other than when one is having an asthma attack. Maybe you know someone who suffers from these ailments and could potentially have a big turnaround in the quality of their life if you taught it to them. Isn’t that enough of a reason to learn it well yourself?
The mind achieves a beautiful lucidity and crystalline quality after several rounds of kapalabhati. It also energizes and wakes you up if you are sleepy or tired. This is an excellent practice to do before meditation.
Subtle Body Benefits
The nadis are purified. Ajna chakra can also be directly affected and stimulated by kapalabhati, particularly if you do the practice with your eyes closed and your focus at the ajna chakra.
Having the wish to be able to truly help others by becoming whole or perfected ourselves causes results from our practice to be very quick. Because any action that is undertaken to help others ripens very quickly, through the combination of inner and outer methods, you can realize an intensity of love and service that has to be experienced yourself. That is the goal of yoga. Try it and you’ll see it’s true. You may be wondering what inner and outer methods are. The Tibetan phrase chi-nang tabla tsowor bey means use both. An inner method might be doing a gratitude or compassion meditation. An outer method might be meditating at a ney or crucial point in the subtle body or a pranayama or asana practice, aimed at affecting the subtle body. Or maybe you visit an old people’s home, or a hospital, or a soup kitchen, giving love and light to those in need. All your spiritual goals and aspirations will come to fruition if you practice this way, because emotionally opening your heart to others in pain directly affects your subtle body at the same time. So then when you sit down to “practice” the sky will open and a rain of blessings will pour down into you.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture with a straight spine. Begin by exhaling repeatedly and rhythmically through the nose - forcefully, but lightly. This is done by contracting the abdominal muscles and drawing the belly button inwardly sharply. The ensuing inhalation should be reflexive, as the abdomen relaxes and expands. Start with 10 exhalations, then rest. Do 3 rounds to start. Start at a speed of about one per second, then gradually speed up to about two per second as you progress over several weeks or months.
Ideally one would flow straight into meditation after kapalabhati. If this is not possible then sit quietly for a few minutes after the practice has ended.
Tips from Deep Retreat
You must learn this practice directly from a teacher if you have never done it before.
Kapalabhati is a lovely, warming practice – do it gently so that someone across the room could barely hear the sound of your exhalations.
We were taught to perform kapalabhati as we do certain yoga asanas – for example, navasana or boat pose, bhujapindasana or shoulder press pose.
Use kapalabhati to clear nasal passages quickly before other pranayamas or before meditation. It is also used to dry the nose after neti or nasal flush.
When your abdomen is fatigued and it feels as though you can no longer pull in your belly easily, it’s time to stop.
If you are bloated, have gas or are constipated, it makes it difficult to perform kapalabhati so check with your teacher for ways to alleviate these conditions first.
Kapalabhati should be learned directly from a qualified teacher. Not recommended for those suffering from high blood pressure, vertigo, hernia, gastric ulcers, epilepsy, stroke, or if you are pregnant. Unless you want to stay up all night this pranayama is not advised before bed, as it energizes and wakes up the entire mind/body complex. Stop the practice immediately if you feel pain, discomfort, dizziness or feel faint. It is best to perform kapalabhati on an empty stomach, or at least 3 – 4 hours after eating.