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Five Pillars Yoga

Breathwork Basics: Kapalabhati + Breath of Fire

Sister Pranayama Practices That Raise Energy and Heighten Awareness

In our last breathwork post we covered Alternate Nostril Breath, a harmonizing practice designed to balance the left and right sides of the body. This week we explore Kapalabhati and Breath of Fire, two similar and dynamic pranayamas that significantly increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and the brain. Stimulating and detoxifying, they can clear the head and sinuses and fire up the belly — perfect for alleviating springtime allergies and general sluggishness.

While the terms Kapalabhati and Breath of Fire are often used interchangeably, they are slightly different. Breath of Fire is prescribed in Kundalini yoga on its own (eventually building up to a 31-minute practice) or as a jetpack to boost many kriyasKapalabhati translates to Skull Shining Breath and is practiced with the intention of clearing the cobwebs of the mind — imagine polishing a fogged-up window until you can see through it clearly.

The main difference is in the length and nature of the inhale. In BOF they are the same length. In Kapalabhati the exhale is longer and the inhale is passive; essentially it happens on its own.

Here’s what you need to know about both:

  • Breath is rapid, rhythmic and continuous.
  • Inhales and exhales are through the nose.
  • Breath is powered from the navel and the solar plexus through rapid stomach pumps: On the exhale, air is expelled through the nose by pressing the navel back toward the spine. On the inhale, the belly relaxes and the diaphragm flattens down
  • For Kapalabhati, focus on the exhale; it should be forceful but not forced. The vacuum created by the exhale will naturally lead to an inhale; teachers often call this a passive inhale.
  • In Breath of Fire, work toward producing inhales and exhales of equal length.
  • This breath can be fast and rigorous but the body stays relaxed, especially the face. No wrinkles!
  • As you become more accustomed to them, these pranayamas can be practiced for long periods of time; but start small, one to three minutes — this is powerful stuff.

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How to do them:

  • Find a comfortable sit with a long spine, head gently inclined toward your chest.
  • Set your attention at your third eye, just between the brows, with eyes gently closed.
  • Hands can rest on your knees, fingers in maha-chin mudra (index fingers under the thumbs); or, to turn up the volume a bit, arms extended in a wide V over your head, fingers tucked into your palm with your thumb stuck out like a cosmic hitchhiker.
  • Take a regular inhale and exhale to begin. Then, inhale partway and begin breathing rapidly while engaging the belly, letting it move in with the exhale and out with the inhale.
  • When you’re done, draw a deep breath in, retain the air in until it no longer feels comfortable, and then slowly release air through the nose.
  • Sit quietly and observe the effects.

Why do it?

Breath of Fire and Kapalabhati are incredibly potent practices for arriving in the present moment, a snap to attention.

Here are some additional benefits:

  • Releases toxins
  • Expands lung capacity
  • Strengthens the nervous system
  • Balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
  • Powers up the third chakra
  • Increases stamina
  • Energizes blood flow and circulation
  • Delivers oxygen to the brain, resulting in improved focused and a natural state of calm awareness
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Aids in digestion

As noted above, these are powerful practices, so begin with short sessions and rest if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Neither of these pranayamas are recommended for pregnant ladies and they’re uncomfortable to practice on a full stomach. As with any pranayama practice it’s wise to study with a teacher. Energy moves up and out in unexpected ways, so a safe container for experimentation is really vital. Practice them on their own, as part of your meditation, or add to an asana like plank or utkatasana to heat things up.

 

Top photo from Open Hearted Healings; bottom photo courtesy of Susan Rae