Jenny has been backpacking since 1997 and teaching yoga since…
KapÄlabhÄti breath is said to be a heating and detoxifying breath, so much so that it is generally classified as being a cleansing practice or kriyÄ. To put it briefly, kapÄlabhÄti 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.
Benefits of kapÄlabhÄti breath
Some of the many stated benefits of kapÄlabhÄti are:
• drying up phlegm and reducing kapha (one of the three humours or doá¹£as of the body in Ä€yurveda)
• 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 nÄá¸Ä«s (energy channels).
Hmm, now we might be getting somewhere.
I have heard many explanations for the translation of kapÄlabhÄti 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 kapÄlabhÄti 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 kapÄla into a Sanskrit dictionary it will come up with ‘relating to the skull or cranium’ or simply ‘skull’. KÄpÄla (note long first ‘Ä’) is the adjectival form, meaning ‘relating to the skull’, while kapÄla with the short first ‘a’ is the noun, meaning ‘skull’. And bhÄti does indeed come up with words like ‘shine’, ‘light’ and ‘to be splendid or beautiful’. At first glance you might think (I did!) that kapÄla could also mean a ‘kind of leprosy’ and bhÄti ‘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 kapÄla as skull and bhÄti as ‘that which brings lightness’. Iyengar defines kapÄla as ‘skull’ and bhÄti as ‘light’ or ‘lustre’, referring to the practice as a ‘process of clearing the sinuses’. And Swami Satyananda Saraswati translates kapÄlabhÄti as ‘frontal brain cleansing breath’. So there we have it – kapÄlabhÄti, shining skull breath, a cleansing practice that purifies the body and balances the doá¹£as. 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 kapÄlabhÄti 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 kapÄlabhÄti 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 kapÄlabhÄti 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 kapÄlabhÄti’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!, VÄ«rabhadra doesn’t mean warrior, Do you know how to pronounce haá¹ha?, Astanga, siva, cakras and caturaá¹…ga: what about the ‘h’?
, Parivá¹›tta: revolved or reverse? and Urdhva or adho mukha Å›vÄnÄsana
Graham is a London based yoga teacher, teacher trainer, occasional academic, and Sanskrit geek.