“No, Kapalabhati is not Sanskrit for ‘bathroom break’ or ‘take a sip of water,’ ” I’m often tempted to joke to my students in order to encourage participation in what seems to be yoga’s most underappreciated breathing exercise. However, I understand; I used to find this powerful pranayama technique challenging and uncomfortable—and consequently, tried to avoid it too. After learning about and experiencing some of the physical, mental, and energetic benefits of Kapalabhati, I decided to commit to a few rounds each morning. To my surprise, this breath has slowly become one of my favorite daily practices.
Kapalabhati, also known as Breath of Fire, is a pumping of the diaphragm toward the spine—a forced exhalation followed by a natural inhalation. It’s an exercise that takes most people a bit of time and effort to warm up to, but the practice is worth it. Breath of Fire helps to stimulate and maintain health, strength, and well-being on all levels.
Kapalabhati (breath of fire or the skull shining breath) is an invigorating, energizing, warming, and purifying breathing exercise. You can learn and explore Kapalabhati and many more of these powerful yogic breathing techniques in our pranayama practice section.
The Benefits of Kapalabhati Pranayama
- Physical Benefits
Yogis utilize Breath of Fire to naturally elevate energy levels and physical stamina. Apart from this, it strengthens and increases the capacity of the lungs while helping to expel toxins and excess mucus. Due to its cleansing nature, Kapalabhati is one of the six shatkarmas (purification practices) recommended in yogic philosophy.
The pumping motion involved in Breathe of Fire serves to develop and tone the diaphragm and intercostal muscles and improves both circulation and the functioning of the digestive system as the breath warms the body.
Breath of Fire also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for relaxation and conditions that promote the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
- Mental Benefits
Breath of Fire increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, which can stimulate the mind and provide clarity in thought. In fact, although we call Kapalabhati Breath of Fire, the Sanskrit name actually translates to Skull Shining Breath due to its illuminating effects.
Kapalabhati helps us to focus, both during and after the breathing practice, leading to a state of peace. Furthermore, since this pranayama exercise takes practice and patience to perfect, working with it increases our inner strength and stamina, leading to a sense of empowerment. Studies show that Breath of Fire can also be used to overcome anger, addiction, and other harmful habits.
- Energetic Benefits
Actively pumping the diaphragm in Breath of Fire activates the third chakra, located at the solar plexus (slightly above the navel). As we actively engage this part of our physical and energetic body, we stimulate qualities of our being that are associated with this chakra—namely personal power and confidence.
Breath of Fire also facilitates the flow of prana, our life force energy, throughout the body, clearing energetic stagnancy and blockages along the way. Although Breath of Fire is slightly different in Kundalini yoga (due to emphasis on equal inhalation and exhalation), Kundalini practices frequently focus on this breath to move energy and to strengthen the aura—the electromagnetic field that surrounds and protects the physical body.
How to Incorporate Breath of Fire into Your Practice
We generally practice Breath of Fire in a seated position with a straight spine and relaxed shoulders, either on its own or with other pranayama exercises, before an asana or meditation session.
Although it is one of the most common pranayama exercises taught in all-level classes, Breath of Fire is generally considered to be an intermediate to advanced breathing technique, and it’s crucial to perform it correctly. If you’re new to Breath of Fire, take it easy, finding your own rhythm. Start with multiple short sessions and take breaks in between, building up from 30 seconds to one minute to 90 seconds as the breath begins to feel more comfortable. Experienced practitioners often engage in this breath for several minutes at a time.
You’ll know you’ve found your Breath of Fire when it begins to feel invigorating. Chances are, the more you practice Breath of Fire, the more you’ll want to practice Breath of Fire, since connecting with and strengthening our own vitality can bring immense pleasure to our bodies and minds.
Breath of Fire During Asana
Breath of Fire can also be integrated into an asana practice—either in seated positions or during longer holds of postures. This can help us to “power through” poses that we find challenging and also increases the benefits of the yoga poses and their energetic reach in the body.
To experiment with incorporating this pranayama exercise into your yoga practice, try holding a pose that engages the core and strengthens the solar plexus for one minute with Breath of Fire.
Ideal asanas for Breath of Fire
The benefits of Kapalabhati are often amplified by following each series of pumps with a short breath retention and a slight engagement of mula bandha.
Keep in mind that breath is the foundation of yoga practice. If experimenting with Breath of Fire during a yoga pose feels stressful or unnatural, take a break and return to a natural rhythm of long, deep abdominal breaths.
As with any practice, be mindful of your body and use your intuition with Breath of Fire—if something doesn’t feel quite right, perhaps it’s not the time or way to include this pranayama exercise in your practice. If you’re unsure about your Breath of Fire technique, a qualified yoga instructor can provide guidance.
People with heart conditions, high blood pressure, epilepsy, vertigo, and pregnant women should avoid Breath of Fire. For others, this breath can be a powerful way to cultivate strength, clarity, and peace for a yoga session or anything else in life.
Share your experience!
Do you practice Breath of Fire before, during, or after your asana or meditation practice? Please share how this energizing breath has affected your yoga practice and benefited your life. Let us know in the comments below!