Want to energize? Try this powerful breath.
Imagine you could go inside your head and brush and floss all the old sensations, feelings, and thoughts that plague you. In fact, there is a yoga practice whose name implies just that. It is a delightfully refreshing and energizing practice when we need a boost of energy. It helps us shift away from dullness, lethargy, or feeling stuck, whether these are on physical, emotional, or mental levels, and it makes room for fresh nourishment. This technique is known as “Kapalabhati,” which translates as “skull-shining” breath. It is both a “pranayama,” a breathing technique to enhance “prana” or life force, as well as a “shat kriya,” one of “six actions” whose purpose is cleansing. In the discipline of Kapalabhati, what is cleared away is stagnation, making room for qualities like clarity, calm repose, or sweet bursts of vitality.
First, make sure Kleenexes are handy, and clear your nostrils before you begin. Start in a steady and comfortable seated pose. Establish relaxed yet deep diaphragmatic breathing. In order to advance to the practice of Kapalabhati, you must first have awareness of the diaphragm and its relation to abdominal muscles, a delicate appreciation that comes with refined practice of diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing not only oxygenates and cleanses your body by deepening your breath; it also calms your nervous system and deepens your self-knowledge. If you are not fully proficient in this breath technique, start by attending any AHA! Yoga class; this breath is central to all our classes for good reason. You can also begin diaphragmatic breath training by studying this article on diaphragmatic breathing by Rolf Sovik, a yoga teacher and psychologist whose doctoral research focused on the correlation of breath and states of mind (and one of your own AHA! Yoga teacher’s teachers!).
Once you are well-established into your diaphragmatic breathing, then pause and take stock: What sensations do you notice physically, and upon what is your mind focused? How are the qualities of your emotional and energetic states at this moment? Remember that yoga is as much more about gaining refined self-awareness as it is reaching some future goal, so these check-ins are crucial (We’ll be exploring this more in next month’s newsletter!). When you are ready, draw your attention to both your abdominal center and the center of your mind—above your nostril passages, below the crown, and a few inches into your head deeply below your surface eyebrow center.
Kapalabhati itself begins on an exhale. On the exhale, take that attention on your belly and quickly and powerfully draw the abdominal muscles in and up towards the spine, then allow your inhale to come naturally and passively. Be sure that your upper torso remains relatively stable and still; it is your belly that is the activator here. The effort remains on the exhales as you continue. Actively pull in on the exhale, passively relax the belly and breath as you inhale.
As with any physical exertion, Kapalabhati includes some contraindications. Do not practice Kapalabhati if you’ve had recent surgery, have high or low blood pressure or cardiac disorders, glaucoma, fluid in the ears, nose bleeding, hernia, or if you are pregnant. Many practitioners report discomfort if it is done during menstruation. Everyone should practice this breath only on an empty stomach.
With practice, the abdominal exertion during the exhale remains powerful but the conscious mental attention on the belly becomes more natural. As this occurs, and you continue to powerfully exhale and passively inhale, your focus remains on the center of your mind, the place where you are “shining” that skull. The strong exhale moves from the center of your mind, down and out through your nostrils; the inhale comes into and up through the nostrils and returns back to the center of your mind. This part of your attention is what helps this action take on a meditative focus, and foster that release of stagnation in the mind. The powerful exertions of the abdomen during the exhale help invigorate your physical body and vital energy as well. With practice, you may even begin to discern how the different layers of your being—physical, emotional, mental, energetic, and meditative—are intricately connected and interdependent.
After a few rounds of Kapalabhati, release that abdominal force, remain seated and relatively still, and return to deep diaphragmatic breathing for a few moments. It is extremely important to pause here and see how you feel after this practice. One of Kapalabhati’s many beautiful functions is to awaken subtleties, so take the time and effort required to wait and reflect: How do you feel energetically after this practice? Where in your being do you feel, and what qualities do you notice?
Kapalabhati is an enlivening and invigorating practice. Combined with other healthy routines such as an appropriate diet and regularity of sleep, Kapalabhati will keep you contained and balanced in thoughts, speech, and actions, helping you act from your best self. That storage attic of your mind is now cleared and shining beautifully to welcome energy, creativity, and happiness into your very being so you can shine throughout your day. Shine on.
Want to practice Kapalabhati in class? Join us for the “Yoga for Energy” series, two options starting soon! We learn Kapalabhati week 3, and 5 other breath trainings that help us regulate our energy. These are all life-long practices well-worth learning. Agni Sara, coming up in our June 25 workshop, is also great preparation for Kapalabhati.
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Disclaimer: Always consult your healthcare provider before practicing yoga, or any other exercise program. The information provided on this website is intended for educational purposes only, and not as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. The author, illustrator, editor, and publisher assume no responsibility for injuries or harm that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program.
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Anderson, Sandra and Rolf Sovik. Yoga: Mastering the Basics. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: The Himalayan Institute Press, 2000 (reprint 2011).
Coulter, H. David. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Body and Breath, 2001 (revised edition), pages 108-137.
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008, pages 179-180.
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The mission of Alligator Healing Arts Yoga is to share yoga techniques of asana (postures), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation, to foster deep calm, overall health, and self-awareness, so that each student experiences continual physical and mental wellness and empowerment. Histories, symbolism, and philosophies of yoga are introduced to encourage wise intention, expression, and understanding in our everyday lives.