Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pranayama Power: Kapalabhati Breath

The discovery of so many different kinds of breathing techniques was one of the coolest things about my 200-hour teacher training for me.  The most commonly taught, ujayih or victorious breath, was something I was familiar with, since about 90% of my yoga teachers cued that breath to be maintained throughout the class as we moved through our asana practice.  You may be familiar with it too even if you don't recognize the name - it's simply a deep inhalation and exhalation with a slight constriction of the throat.  It makes what some teachers call a "deep ocean sound," and others (me) call a Darth Vader sound.

Rarely, in my classes in beautiful ol' Virginia or Florida, we would do another technique, like slow three-part breath.  Perhaps the teacher would throw out the Sanskrit name, and I'm sure it went in one ear and out the other.  Now, however, I regularly reference back to my old manual to review all the different techniques (and pretty sounding names) we learned.

My number one favorite is Kapalabhati, or Skull-Shining Breath if you want the equally awesome English name for it.  I've been practicing this technique every morning as part of my daily meditation practice to help clear away some of the chattery cobwebs of my brain and help my body sink into stillness.  It works like a charm.

To start, you want a steady and comfortable seat.  Normally I'm just in a regular cross legged seat for my personal practice, but whenever I teach kapalabhati in a class I usually have my students sit in supported virasana as the picture demonstrates.  I think this is the best seat for the practice because you're higher up, your hips are both level, and your spine can be taller than if you're just in cross legged (even if you're sitting up on a blanket).  You can also just sit in any chair where you can place your feet flat on the ground and your spine straight.

Take a deep breath in and a full breath out.  Start to pull your navel in towards your spine as you exhale, but keep your spine tall - resist the urge to hunch forward or slouch.  Imagine there's a string tied to the top of your head pulling up gently up to keep that length.

Take one more deep breath in, and exhale all the air out, as much as you possibly can.  Once you're empty, take a small breath in (think "halfway inhale" or even a third) and begin sharp, rapid exhales, bringing your navel and your lower abdomen in towards your spine.  The inhales will happen naturally - the focus in kapalabhati is entirely on the exhale.  One of my teachers this week taught this in class (the day I decided this would be my blog topic for the week, in fact) and she often calls out "Tap, tap, tap, tap," both to help us find a rhythm and to also keep our focus on the physicality of our exhale.  We imagine that our navel is tapping the spine, that it's giving our internal organs a vigorous massage.

Those are the basics of this practice.  You can do it for one minute, you can do one round or three, you can even slow down the breath so it's not quite so rapid.  Or you can play with the speed and see what works for you.

My favorite part of kapalabhati, though, comes when you add breath retention in between rounds.  For example, after I finish my first round (I don't time myself necessarily but I'd guess I go for about a minute each round) I exhale all the air out again, and then take a deep breath in and hold my breath for as long as I comfortably can, trying to relax my body around the holding.  If you're familiar with moola bhanda, uddiyana bhanda, and jalandhara bhanda, I engage them.  If not - well, that's a whole other post!

Once I've had enough of the holding, I take one more tiny sip of air in, release the locks, and slowly breathe out, then either returning to normal breath or taking a couple more rounds.

I love this practice because it never fails to leave me with a tangible, physical feeling of peace and stillness.  It's really remarkable.  The first time I experienced it (with the breath retention), it was mindblowing. This is a great breath to do to help wake yourself up or calm yourself down (although it's usually the practice of retention during and after that brings about calm).  I also love it because it's actually a great way to tone the abdominal muscles.  Drawing the muscles in close to the spine does you a lot more good than a typical crunch or sit-up.

As far as the subtle body goes, this practice is very much associated with the 3rd Chakra, Manipura.  Manipura is located at the solar plexus, and is associated physically with our abdomen and our digestive fire.  It's also associated with fear, courage, power, steadfastness, and is considered the store house of our emotions.  The element associated with it is, not surprisingly, fire.  Kapalabhati is a great way to stir up the fire, or agni, of the third chakra, but if you're already feeling pretty fiery, it could be overkill.

 Because of the drawing in of the belly and the rapid movement, yogis also categorize this as a highly detoxifying breath.  Good news with Thanksgiving around the corner!

Try integrating a few rounds of kapalabhati with your regular yoga practice and notice how it makes you feel.  With the winter upon us, this is a great warming practice to carry with you throughout these next few months.  Post your comments and feedback to let me know how it went!

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