what does kapālabhāti mean

Kapālabhāti breath is said to be a heating and detoxifying breath, so much so that it is generally classified as being a cleansing practice or kriyā. To put it briefly, kapālabhāti involves active, forced exhalations and passive inhalations – a ‘pumping’ of the breath out through both nostrils, causing the abdomen to move inwards. But why is it generally translated as ‘shining skull breath’ and what is a shining skull anyway? More of that in a minute.

And does anyone know for sure?

Benefits of kapālabhāti breath

Some of the many stated benefits of kapālabhāti are:

• drying up phlegm and reducing kapha (one of the three humours or doṣas of the body in Āyurveda)

• stimulation of the abdominal organs

• improved digestion

• increased energy levels

• improved blood circulation

• cleansing of the air passages, from the lungs up to the nostrils

• a calm and uplifted mind (relieving depression)

• weight loss through increased metabolic rate, and

• cleansing of the organs within the skull and the nāḍīs (energy channels).

Hmm, now we might be getting somewhere.

Kapālabhāti stories:

I have heard many explanations for the translation of kapālabhāti as ‘shining skull breath’. The first yoga teacher who taught me this practice said that it is called ‘shining skull breath’ because of the sensations that it might create in your head, forehead and face. Sounds plausible, and sure enough I did initially get a lot of tingling or buzzing in my skull, but that has faded with practice.

The next teacher I came across suggested that the translation comes from the cleansing nature of the practice, and therefore the impact that it has on the organs within the head. I have heard various teachers talk about this benefit. Again, seems reasonable.

I have even heard it said that the forehead will glow from the outside and the intellect will be sharpened through a regular kapālabhāti practice. Interesting, but so far no glowing forehead for me, and I haven’t quite joined Mensa yet!

The trusty Sanskrit dictionary

So what does the Sanskrit dictionary have to say about this? If you plug kapāla into a Sanskrit dictionary it will come up with ‘relating to the skull or cranium’ or simply ‘skull’. Kāpāla (note long first ‘ā’) is the adjectival form, meaning ‘relating to the skull’, while kapāla with the short first ‘a’ is the noun, meaning ‘skull’. And bhāti does indeed come up with words like ‘shine’, ‘light’ and ‘to be splendid or beautiful’.

At first glance you might think (I did!) that kapāla could also mean a ‘kind of leprosy’ and bhāti ‘earnings of prostitution’. How do we know which translation is correct?

That’s when we need yoga’s texts and our teachers rather than a dictionary. T.K.V. Desikachar defines kapāla as skull and bhāti as ‘that which brings lightness’. Iyengar defines kapāla as ‘skull’ and bhāti as ‘light’ or ‘lustre’, referring to the practice as a ‘process of clearing the sinuses’. And Swami Satyananda Saraswati translates kapālabhāti as ‘frontal brain cleansing breath’. So there we have it – kapālabhāti, shining skull breath, a cleansing practice that purifies the body and balances the doṣas. As for what this ‘shining skull’ actually refers to, I’m still not quite sure.

Figuring it out for yourself

As usual when it comes to yoga, practice is more important than theory. Why not try kapālabhāti breath now, and observe the impact that it has on your mind, body and even your skull! Start by coming into a comfortable, seated position, then place your hands on your belly and cough.

As you cough, notice that your belly moves inwards. If your belly doesn’t move inwards, skip kapālabhāti breath today, instead breathing with your hands on your belly, encouraging your belly to expand as you inhale and relax or retract as you exhale.

When you are ready for kapālabhāti breath, take a deep inhalation and then actively, repeatedly exhale your breath through your nose in short bursts for eight to twenty gentle pumps.

Your stomach should move or pump in with every exhalation, the inhalation is passive. Repeat three times, taking a few deep breaths between rounds, noticing any sensations in your body and particularly your head. With time and practice you might increase the number of pumps, even up to 108, but there is plenty of time for that, take it slowly and gently.

What do you think?

So, does your skull feel like it is shining? And even if it doesn’t, what other sensations can you observe? Remember that there are no correct answers, only observations of what you are actually experiencing at any given moment. And if you know more about the theory behind kapālabhāti’s translation, I would really love to hear it!

This article is the seventh in a series of articles considering Sanskrit translations and faux pas.

Check out the other six:

It’s not the crow!
Vīrabhadra doesn’t mean warrior,
Do you know how to pronounce haṭha?
Astanga, siva, cakras and caturaṅga: what about the ‘h’?
Parivṛtta: revolved or reverse?
Urdhva or adho mukha śvānāsana

Resources :

  1. Desikachar, T.K.V. (1999). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Inner Traditions International, Vermont, USA.
  2. Iyengar, B.K.S. (1976). Light on Yoga. Unwin Paperbacks, London, UK.
  3. Saraswati, S.S. (2003). Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, India.
  4. Online Sanskrit dictionary

About Jenny

Jenny is the author of Yoga for Travellers, a how to guide for anyone wanting to practice yoga on the road, both on and off the mat. For more information please visit the Yoga for Travellers facebook page

About Graham

Graham is a London based yoga teacher, teacher trainer, occasional academic, and Sanskrit geek.

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