DEPENDING on who you ask, kapalbhati could either be a shatkarma or both shatkarma and pranayama.
In my very first assignment submitted as part of a 200-hour teacher training course in mid-April, I referred to kapalbhati as “one of several breathing techniques in the pranayama repertoire.” I lost a mark just like that, or I would have gotten a 50/50 assignment.
And for clarifying what I felt was a correct answer, right there in class, I was greeted with a reprimand, along with a few nods from classmates who unanimously agreed with my teacher.
“No,” he said. “It’s not pranayama; it’s a shatkarma, a cleansing technique that prepares us for pranayama. Didn’t we cover this before in class?”
My mind was in a muddle that morning and my Hatha Yoga Pradipika hadn’t been by my side, or I would have fought tooth and nail for my one mark. Here’s what our trusted Pradipika has to say:
Kapalbhati is a pranayama technique which invigorates the entire brain and awakens the dormant centers which are responsible for subtle perception.
It goes on thus, two lines after:
It is a similar practice to bhastrika pranayama except that exhalation is emphasized and inhalation is the result of forcing the air out.
And if you turned to the glossary page, the entry for our cleansing breath doesn’t sit as a lone word, so that it looks like this:
Need I say more?
NO matter, the pranayama quibble seems petty within the larger scheme of things. Consider the whole mechanics of kapalbhati, for example, and that phrase “inhalation is the result of forcing the air out.” What does that mean?
For the longest time ever—a year or two perhaps since I first started practicing yoga in 2007—I never quite figured out how the body was able to feed itself with oxygen when all I was doing was exhaling forcefully and furiously.
So let’s turn very simply to normal breathing, where inhalation is active and exhalation is passive. In kapalbhati, the process is reversed so that inhalation occurs naturally as a result of a sudden vacuum in the lungs. It is the same principle behind an accordion or a blacksmith’s bellows—the imagery the Pradipika invokes in Chapter 2, Verse 35.
It is here in this verse that shatkarma screams out at us, when it speaks of how kapalbhati “destroys all mucous disorders.” Translated as “frontal brain cleansing,” kapalbhati is the sixth and last of the cleansing techniques practiced by yogis.
Of the six, I’d say this is the easiest to master—conceptually and physically—unless you’re drawn to the idea of threading a waxed string from one nostril through to the other, or sucking up water from the derrière while squatting navel deep in water.
Yet I know of many who furrow their brows, pump their shoulders up and down, or hunch at each exhale while practicing kapalbhati—odd tics I’ve observed from stealing peeps into the mirror when everyone else in class is looking inward.
I suppose one could cut all those extraneous movements by focusing on two things: belly and breath. After all, the exhale emanates from a forceful compression of the abdomen, not the chest. If that’s all too difficult, try blowing from the mouth—as if you were blowing out a candle—then graduate to the nostrils.
Cramps in the side can sometimes set in, in which case, gently back off and return to it again whenever you’re ready.
The general spirit of kapalbhati must be one of comfort and ease, so that you aren’t going too fast or too forceful for your own good. Reduced force and speed do not compromise the benefits of the practice, according to my teacher Arun. It’s the only reason why I could work up 500 strokes at his pranayama and meditation class once, non-stop and almost effortlessly.
And what if everyone else in class were speeding away as if they were rushing to catch a train? Well, let them.
This was my approach to life whenever I arrived at the sheetali-infused kapalbhati at the end of those Bikram classes during my hot-mad days years ago. This is where a Hatha purist would turn his nose up and question the logic of placing the practice at the end, rather than the start of class.
WE could, however, steer clear of those quarrels by focusing on all the benefits of kapalbhati.
Think of how the circulatory system gets a boost as a result of the diaphragm contracting and relaxing. During a forced exhalation, blood from the abdominal region is pushed towards the heart. That same diaphragmatic motion does wonderful things for the digestion as well, powering up a massage on the digestive organs, the liver and the pancreas.
Of course, there’s the whole deal behind “frontal lobe cleansing,” which we can understand better via the breath.
In a natural respiratory cycle, the rate of compression and decompression occurs at 14 times per minute; in kapalbhati, it increases in tandem with the number of breaths, up to 120 strokes per minute.
The increased blood supply to the brains not only explains why the practice is called “frontal lobe cleansing,” it also lends a touch of poetry: kapal means “cranium” or “skull,” while bhati refers to “light” or “splendor” as well as “perception” and “knowledge.”
In other words, the practice promises a shining skull each time—perhaps not literally, but figuratively, in spirit and mind.
Incidentally, it is this increased compression and decompression of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain that explains how kapalbhati “invigorates the entire brain and awakens the dormant centers which are responsible for subtle perception.”
And that, I promise, is my last argument for why kapalbhati is a pranayama technique as much as a shatkarma.
As a general and gentle guideline, women in their moon cycle should avoid kapalbhati and other fast breathing techniques. The increase in heat in the body may cause heavier bleeding and will also put excessive pressure on the abdominal region.