Breath of Fire: How to Practice Kapalabhati
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Breath of Fire is a well known pranayama practice that has many benefits. An energizing and cleansing pranayama, the Sanskrit name for Breath of Fire is Kapalabhati. In Sanskrit, Kapal means skull and bhati means shining or illuminating, so together Kapalabhati means skull shining breath. In the Kundalini tradition of yoga, this breathwork is most commonly known as Breath of Fire or Agni Pran. The practice of Kapalabhati varies slightly with the Kundalini tradition because the inhales and exhales are even.
In yoga, fire is the element of transformation. Breath of fire is a transformative pranayama practice that will leave you feeling energized. It helps you to tap into your tapas or inner discipline. Once I started to experience the physical, mental and energetic benefits of Kapalabhati, I found myself practicing it regularly. It is now part of my morning routine and helps me to easily skip the coffee.
Begin with a deep cleansing inhale, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Inhale deeply through the nose and fill the belly about 75% with air. Quickly and forcefully, exhale all of the air in your belly through the nose while you draw the navel in towards the spine. This snapping of the belly is a movement that takes place from the diaphragm and will happen naturally with the forceful exhales through the nose. Let the inhales happen naturally and let the belly fill with air every time, focusing only on your forceful and fast exhales. Repeat this 15-25 times.
Kapalabhati can be practiced from a seated position or in asana practice. It is an intermediate to advanced pranayama, so move into the practice of Kapalabhati slowly. I recommend starting in a seated position first. Once you integrate breath of fire in a seated position into your regular practice, you can then begin to add it into your asana practice.
I often pair breath of fire with asana practices that focus on the core. There are 3 Nadis, or energy channels, in our body. The three main Nadis run from the base of the spine to the head. There is the Ida on the left, Shushumna in the center and Pingala on the right. There are two centers that the Nadis originate from. One is the heart and the other is the kanda. The kanda is an egg shaped bulb just below the navel in the pelvis.
As the diaphragm snaps during breath of fire, it makes perfect sense to incorporate this pranayama with core work. There's this sense of tapping into inner strength, building stamina and stoking your internal fire with Kapalabhati. Core work goes hand in hand with these principles. Core work also helps us tap into that third chakra, the Solar Plexus chakra, that Kapalabhati activates.
Come into a kneeling position on the mat. The thighs come together and the tops of the feet press down into the earth. The toes are not tucked. Lower the seat so that you are sitting on the tops of the heels. The ankles, shins and knees stay in one solid line. Traditionally, when practicing Vajrasana, the big toes would come together and the heels part slightly making space for the seat to come between the heels. This can be challenging so a common variation is to sit on the heels.
Vajrasana stimulates the Vajra Nadi. The Vajra Nadi helps to improve digestion, stimulate digestive organs and it awakens kundalini energy. It's one of the best poses for increasing agni, or digestive fire. Furthermore, from this kneeling position the spine is upright and fosters the free flow of energy. This is what makes Vajrasana ideal for pranayama or meditation.
From Mountain Pose, take a deep inhale and extend the arms overhead. Bring the arms out with the biceps slightly in front of the ears. Keep the palms facing one another and the arms parallel. As you exhale, bend the knees and lower the hips until the thighs are as close to parallel with the earth as feels comfortable for you. The torso comes forward and forms a ninety degree angle with the thighs. Slide the shoulders down the back and take a slight tuck of the tailbone to lengthen the spine.
Chair pose is a heat building yoga pose. Utkatasana is often translated as "Fierce Pose." Chair pose forces us to gather and align all of our life force energy and helps us to build stamina. Utkatasana is all about consistent practice and helps us to build our internal fire. Physically, it strengthens the legs and the core.
Start in plank pose and lower down onto the forearms, one arm at a time. The elbows should be right underneath the shoulders. Slide the shoulders down the back. Press the heels back. Draw the lower belly in and upwards. The thighs are active. Imagine that you could move the front body towards the back body. The neck stays in line with the spine and the drishti is out in front of you.
Forearm plank is all about the core. It's another yoga pose that requires a great deal of strength and concentration. It also builds stamina and helps to flame our internal fire. It requires discipline, focus and consistent practice. It activates the solar plexus chakra, the third chakra, just like Breath of Fire.
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