Kapalbhati: a beginner's guide to skull shining breath

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

The breathwork technique of kapalbhati literally translates to skull shining breath.

This vigorous pranayama technique is believed to clear out “stale” oxygen from within the lungs. It is an invigorating practice that works with short, sharp exhales to revitalise the prana (life-force energy) within your respiratory system and body as a whole.

True to its name, this practice can create light-headedness and dizziness, giving your skull that “shining” quality.

Practice slowly and gradually to build up the number of repetitions. This will give your body time to acclimate to this intense and invigorating practice.

The benefits of kapalbhati

Relieves stress

Although most people think you need to breathe slowly to reduce stress, there are actually many different styles of pranayama practice that can help to relieve stress and anxiety, including kapalbhati.

According to a study on pranayama, practicing kapalbhati significantly decreased perceived stress in subjects.

Strengthens your core

This technique sees you contract your abdominal muscles as you “pump” air in and out of your body. As a result, regular practice of kapalbhati may help to strengthen the muscles of your core.

Supports respiratory health

Kapalbhati uses forceful exhales in quick succession, contracting the abdominal muscles and respiratory diaphragm. One study by researchers in India found this movement had a positive effect on yoga practitioners, training them to effectively use their diaphragms and abdominal muscles in relaxed breathing.

The researchers say that kapalbhati “also helps in [the] removal of secretions from [the] bronchial tree, clearing up respiratory passages and the alveoli making room for more air.”

Regulates the nervous system

The same study also found that we can influence the nervous system through breathing. Pranayama practices, including kapalbhati, help to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system.

This helps us to create harmony between our fight-or-flight and our rest-and-digest responses.

The contraindications of kapalbhati

It's advisable to stay away from powerful breath practices like kapalbhati If you're pregnant, have a respiratory illness, hernia or a heart condition. You should also not practice kapalbhati if you suffer from high or low blood pressure, or have any problems with your eyes (e.g. glaucoma) or ears.

If you feel light-headed or short of breath at any point during your practice, simply stop and return to your normal, slow, relaxed breath. Resume your practice if or when it feels appropriate.

Progress slowly and cautiously as you learn this intense and electrifying pranayama practice.

Step-by-step guide to kapalbhati

This seemingly simple breath practice is intricate and teeming with benefits.

Bear in mind that pranayama techniques take time to master, so move slowly as you build your kapalbhati practice and enjoy exploring the vast expansiveness of your fiery breath!

  1. Begin seated in a comfortable position. You may wish to sit cross-legged on the floor or on a prop like a meditation cushion. Alternatively, you may prefer to sit in a chair or on a couch. Find a position that feels relaxing for your body where you can also create length through your spine.

  2. Root your sit bones down toward the earth and lengthen the crown of your head up toward the sky. Align your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders over your ribs, and your ribs over your hips.

  3. Draw one hand to rest over your belly to bring awareness to this part of your body.

  4. Take a few long, full, deep breaths and feel the expansion of your belly as your diaphragm (the primary muscle of relaxed respiration) contracts and relaxes with each breath.

  5. When you’re ready, draw a full, deep breath in through your nose.

  6. As you exhale, actively draw your belly towards your spine (in a pumping action) as your push air out through your nose with a huffing sound.

  7. Continue to pump air out through your nose using your belly. Focus only on your sharp, short exhales and allow your inhales to happen naturally as needed. Allow your inhales to be completely passive. Let your inhales be short and secondary to your exhales.

  8. Feel your belly steadily pumping in and out with each forceful exhale that you take in this rhythmic pranayama practice.

  9. Start with 10 slow pumps and then, as you become more experienced, increase the amount of pumps to 30.

  10. When you’re ready, slowly inhale and exhale as you return to your normal, relaxed breathing with a newfound appreciation for your breath.


About Leah Sugerman

Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveller. An eternally grateful student, she writes about and teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on finding the balance between strength and surrender. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings both online and internationally. Connect with Leah and follow her teachings and travels on Instagram, Facebook, and LeahSugerman.com.


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