No matter what type of yoga you practice, breath is at the base of all yoga poses and techniques. Focusing on conscious breathwork, or pranayama, assists you in finding the connection to your practice and to your energy within. Breath of Fire, also known as Kapalabhati (pronounced KAH-pah-lah-BAH-tee), is one of the fundamental breathing techniques often used in Kundalini Yoga. Breath of Fire is used in many of the Kundalini postures as a way to energize both the mind and the body.
Kundalini yoga is often called the “yoga of awareness”. Practicing Kundalini is more than just movement through the poses, it’s a combination of the physical and the spiritual coming together in your practice. This is achieved by blending together breathwork, chants in meditation, and physical postures intended to activate the energy points of the body.
The goal of Kundalini yoga is to strengthen your physical energy while raising your spiritual consciousness. One way to do this is using a breathing pose called the “Breath of Fire”. This technique is used in Kundalini to help strengthen your body and boost your spiritual energy as you move though the practice.
A History of Breath of Fire
From the Hatha Yoga Pradipika comes the translation:
Perform exhalation and inhalation rapidly like the bellows (of a blacksmith). This is called kapalbhati and it destroys all mucus disorders.
Kapalabhati, or Breath of Fire, is considered to be an important Shatkarma, which is a Sanskrit term for a series of Yogic purification techniques that prepare your body for practice. Each Shatkarma helps to cleanse the body by removing toxins and any negative energy that may be blocking the flow of prana energy.
Kapalabhati is derived from two words: “kapala” which means “skull” (and the organs within it), and “bhati”, which means “illuminating”. Practicing the Breath of Fire is intended to revitalise and energize the brain with fresh flowing air as the sinuses and nasal passages are cleansed with breath.
Benefits of Breath of Fire
Kapalabhati is a powerful breathing technique that has many benefits for both the body and the mind:
Strengthens and balances the navel chakra
The navel chakra, also known as the solar plexus chakra or Manipura in Sanskrit, is connected to confidence, self-esteem, and willpower. Having a balanced navel chakra brings inner peace and helps you have more control and confidence when dealing with your thoughts and emotions.
Expands lung capacity
Breath of Fire purifies and expands the lungs. The more lung capacity you have, the more oxygen you’ll be able to breathe throughout your body. This increase in oxygen helps to cleanse the blood. Expanding lung capacity also brings about a sense of increased vitality as more oxygen flows to the brain.
Cleanse toxins from the body
Kapalabhati detoxifies the body through breath, clearing toxins from the blood vessels and lungs. When breathing is done correctly, Breath of Fire increases the circulation of blood throughout the body. This helps to remove a build up of the toxins and other harmful chemicals and substances we come into contact with every day. The Breath of Fire breathing technique takes place more in the abdomen and solar plexus area. This type of diaphragm breathing eliminates toxins as you exhale, providing the body with an overall detoxication effect.
Regulate the glandular system
Doing Breath of Fire for just 31 minutes can help to regulate the pituitary gland, which can then bring into balance the rest of the glandular system.
Overcome addicting cravings
Many of us crave sugar, caffeine, and other substances. Using Kapalabhati breath work can help to reduce these cravings by bringing about an inner sense of calm and peace. As the energy you create with your breathing becomes deep and focused, you’ll be able to release your mind from the cravings and holds that addiction has over you.
Strengthen the nervous system and lower stress
We all deal with some level of stress in our lives – and for some of us, the negative energy that comes with stress can be what’s holding us back from living our life to the fullest. Stress can weaken the nervous system and lead to a variety of health concerns, both physical and mental. Studies show that the Kapalabhati technique, with its rapid breath, can reduce stress. Just 30 minutes of breath awareness using Breath of Fire can lower blood pressure and respiratory breathing, helping to put stress into a manageable perspective. Results of numerous studies indicate that pranayama is one of the most important elements of yoga practices in strengthening the nervous system and promoting health and well being.
As the pranayama breathing of Kapalabhati increases blood flow throughout your body, it’s easier for you to relax and feel calm – this can help reduce pain and discomfort from a variety of ailments, such as headaches, arthritis pain, and sore muscles after a workout. Results of research done on pranayama, including Breath of Fire, shows how beneficial regulated breathing can be to manage pain.
How to Practice Breath of Fire
When you first start practicing Kapalabhati, it’s important to understand that you need to build up the practice over time. Attempting to practice for too long when you’re not ready for the breath can result in feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
For beginners, start with 30 seconds, keeping your breath steady and slow. Breath of Fire is more effective when you take your time, focusing on your pranayama breathing form with emphasis on the belly.
Technique for Breath of Fire
Before practicing Breath of Fire, be sure you have a good understanding of the technique. Practice a few minutes of breath work so you’re familiar with the method:
- Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit, such as on your mat in a cross-legged position. Rest your hands on your knees with an open palm mudra. If you’re unable to sit comfortably on the floor, a chair will work as well. Keep your spine erect and straight.
- Your focus should first be on your breath. Exhale your breath through the nose, using force and sound. Think about clearing your nostrils but with less intensity. After a long exhale, inhale with minimal force.
- Continue with this rhythm of breath exhale/inhale, breathing in and out for 20 breath cycles in 15 seconds. Repeat this 2 to 3 times.
- Bring in the movement of your belly. When you exhale, contract the muscles in your belly and pull your navel in towards the spine. Feel the effort of this contraction. Hold for a second and then release as you inhale. Repeat this 20 times in about 30 seconds. If you’re finding it difficult to contract your belly, go at a slower pace. This movement of breath with belly contraction is perhaps the most important part of the pranayama. As you keep practicing, you’ll find it comes more naturally.
Steps for Breath of Fire practice
Enter your practice of breath with a calm intent, focusing on your spirituality:
- Take a moment to center yourself. Let your mind move away from your physical body to your inner being. Leave behind your thoughts and judgements and think of the sacredness of your inner being. Honor your inner being with gratitude and respect. Practicing your Breath of Fire requires a positive and peaceful energy.
- Once you’re centered, sit up with your spine straight. Place your hands on your thighs with palms open and facing up. Close your eyes and chant OM four times.
- Using the Kapalabhati as learned above, take 20 breaths. When done, relax and be still and quiet for 10 seconds. Focus on the breath flowing through you as you connect even deeper to your inner being.
- Take two long and deep breaths. Then continue with another set of 20 Kapalabhati breaths. Rest for 10 seconds when complete.
- Continue with one more set of Kapalabhati breaths. Rest again for a few seconds.
- Move onto the rest of your yoga practice at this point. If your only practice at this time is Breath of Fire, sit in quiet for about 5 minutes, keeping your intent on your slowed breathing.
During and after practicing Breath of Fire, you may feel a tingling and glow in your face and body. This is natural as your body adjusts to the breath. A slight focus on your brow point can help to relieve this feeling.
Once you’ve mastered the beginner techniques of Breath of Fire you can increase the pace of your breathing, always being mindful of the contraction of your belly in rhythm with your breathing. At this time you can also increase each set of breaths to 50 times.
Best time to practice Breath of Fire
It’s recommended that Breath of Fire be practiced with an empty stomach. As Kapalabhati can be energizing and stimulating, it’s best practiced no later than three hours before bed.
Tips for Best Practice
When getting ready to practice Kapalabhati, find a quiet and serene location in your home. Consider practicing outside in good weather. Adding variety and mental stimulation to your practice can be helpful in harmonizing both your inner and outer energy. Here are a few other tips to get the most out of your Breath of Fire yoga practice:
- Don’t force the inhalations. There may be days when your body is telling you to slow down. Listen to what it’s telling you. You’ll get as much benefit out of your practice from a slow pace as you do from a faster breath cycle.
- Sit straight and try not to hunch over or slouch your shoulders. If you need to add an extra focus to your practice to remain sitting straight, then do so.
- Vary your sitting position. If you always practice Kapalabhati seated in the easy pose of Sukhasana, consider sitting on the edge of a chair or in Virasana with a block for support. Sitting in a different position now and then challenges your mind and body to refocus when it’s gotten comfortable for too long with a familiar position.
- Set your intention for your practice. Remember that your yoga practice, no matter what poses or pranayama you choose do to, is your time to connect with the life-force within you.
- Consider taking a Kundalini yoga class so that you get the benefit of working with an experienced teacher. Taking a class is the ideal way for beginners to be guided through their first practice of Breath of Fire, ensuring that they get the technique right from the very start.
- Don’t give up. Practicing the Breath of Fire takes commitment and dedication. The practice of Kapalabhati is not an easy one, and beginners often find it daunting and discouraging when they’re not feeling any benefits. Go into each breathing session without expecting any benefits at all. Over time, and with practice, you’ll notice a renewed sense of life energy within you.
Kapalabhati can pose a risk for some people. Avoid practicing Breath of Fire if the following conditions apply to you:
- Avoid practicing during the first 2 to 3 days of your menstrual cycle.
- Kapalabhati should not be practiced during pregnancy or nursing.
- Avoid practicing Breath of Fire if you have any gastric-related issues, such as ulcers or acid reflux.
- Avoid Kapalabhati if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, or epilepsy.
- Consult your doctor first before practicing Kapalabhati if you have a hernia or spinal disorder.
The Joy of Breathing
Yoga isn’t just about postures – it’s also about connecting with your inner being through breath and thought. Your yogic breath is just as important to your practice as the physical poses. When you practice Kapalabhati, you’re combining both yogic posture and breath, focusing as you align each in and out breath with the contraction of your belly – paying close attention as the energy of breath flows through your body. The biggest benefit of Breath of Fire is that it keeps you healthy in spirit, mind, and body.
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Catherine Perez is a celebrated yoga instructor in her home state of Connecticut, and she also happens to have a marvelous way with words. Her mindful writing technique is easy to digest and gives readers a unique opportunity to learn from a seasoned yogi.