Kapalbhati: the Breath of Fire
Have you ever practiced or heard of Kapalbhati? Known as 'Frontal Brain Cleansing' or 'the Breath of Fire,' this form of pranayama is without a trace of doubt one of the most practiced forms of breathing across all styles and schools of Yoga. It has an energizing and activating effect able to wake the sleepiest of us on the spot and get us ready to roll ––which is perhaps the reason why it is such a favorite of morning practices!
But did you also know that it is one of the six main Shatkarma or Yogic purification techniques? Its striking effects on our brain and its nadis is the reason for it.
Switching the Light of the Brain ON
Though there are different types of Kapalbhati (or Kapha-labhati), Vatakrama Kapalbhati or 'wind cleansing Kapalbhati' is the simplest version of this type of technique and the one most frequently practiced. To the Sanskrit term 'kapal,' which stands for cranium, we add the term 'bhati,' which means light, perception. Therefore, Kapalbhati is that type of breath able to restore 'the light of proper perception' to our brain. Exactly how this comes to happen has a lot to do with cleansing the energetic pathways of our subtle body, or nadis, and the spiritual centers in our head, or chakras, so that prana can flow freely through them.
Indeed, Kapalbhati works much like one of those plungers we often use to unclog our sinks and bathtubs. On a seated position, during its practice we essentially focus the entirety of our attention on accomplishing a sharp and pumping flow of air on the exhale ––much like in this video–– so that our inhalations can remain short and easy and our exhalations strong, rhythmic, yet comfortable.
Unlike most other forms of pranayama where attention is placed on equalizing inhale and exhale or specifically on the inhale, in this type of technique our inhalations are merely there to support our exhalations; for it is by exerting continuous, regular pressure on our respiratory and circulatory system with our exhales that Kapalbhati manages to progressively unclog any potential energy blockages in our subtle body, clearing the very apparatus responsible as well for subtle perception. And mind you, clear nadis mean a better flow of prana overall and when prana flows freely, health is attained.
An Inner Massage, and then some!
At the physical level, Kapalbhati provides a massage of sorts to our brain as the cerebrospinal fluid bathing our 'thinking center' is compressed and decompressed aided by sudden exhalation/inhalation. On a normal day, we inhale and exhale an average of twelve to twenty times per minute; but during Kapalbhati this average is not just doubled, but often tripled, so that the stimulation of the flow of fluids and information to our brain also grows in proportion.
Every time we pump air out of our nostrils in such a quick and rhythmic fashion, the fluid enveloping our brain rapidly decompresses, our brain expands ever so slightly, and this allows for a gentle and activating massage of its entire surface once we inhale again and the cerebrospinal fluid compresses our brain's surface again. This massage actually expands beyond the brain proper to include also the organs in our chest and belly ––organs that thanks to such constant and rapid inhalation and exhalations are also gently massaged and revitalized.
Additionally, the sudden and even pumping of Kapalbhati pranayama has the added benefit of helping us pump out excess carbon dioxide trapped within our respiratory system. After all, we do have a tendency to breathe more shallowly than we should! This replenishes the storehouse of fresh air into our lungs oxygenizing our cells by the same token. Simultaneously, the flow of blood through our venous system is also invigorated so that the entirety of our body benefits from an increase of energy and vitality, as our metabolism is re-awakened.
When and How to practice Kapalbhati
In the Tantric tradition, Kapalbhati is often practiced with the eyes closed as part of energizing and revitalizing Yoga practices that are also more often left to the morning hours. We want to practice this particular form of pranayama at a time when our brain doesn't need to go into rest and digest, but rather where we want it to be able to process and perform at its best. This is why it is often used as a means to open a morning Yoga session with ––in order to literally wake us up from slumber––, or else at some point during our practice right at the end of our asana section but before meditation.
Regardless of when exactly we choose to practice it, Kapalbhati must be practiced in a seated pose and with ease. That is, it must not require excessive exertion from us as that will basically leave us breathless and a bit rattled if we choose to practice it before meditation. For this reason, it is important to remember that we want to make our exhalations sharp, yet calm; constant without becoming forceful. We need to find an adequate rhythm, the kind of rhythm that will allow us to naturally maintain the pumping motion for up to thirty, fifty or even one hundred exhales without falling short of our breath or losing our concentration. The key, therefore, is to find the adequate balance between concentration and relaxation.