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In yoga, the kapalabhati breath is one among a family of breathing techniques known as pranayama. These breathing techniques are designed to supplement the practice of yoga, with the hopes of building a strong, healthy body. Pranayama techniques also help people to focus, and they are often used during meditation and other religious practices. The kapalabhati breath is generally only recommended for advanced yogis and yoginis, and it should be done under the supervision of a guru, at least at first.
The word “kapalabhati” literally means “skull polishing,” and as the name implies, this pranayama is designed to clear the head. According to gurus, the kapalabhati breath helps to express toxins in the body through a series of forceful expulsion, clearing mucus in the skull and lungs as well. You may also hear it called the “breath of fire,” because it is meant to be energizing. Proponents of the kapalabhati breath say that it is a good way to start the day or a yoga session, and that it can be used as a quick pick-me-up in the midst of a tiring day.
To perform this pranayama, practitioners sit with their spines straight, and usually breathe deeply a few times to get into the rhythm of breathing from the diaphragm, rather than the chest. After one deep inhalation, the practitioner forcefully and quickly exhales through the nose in a series of short exhalations, making a huffing noise. Once all the air has been expelled from the diaphragm, a passive deep inhale occurs, swelling the diaphragm so that the practice can be repeated. Generally people go through 20-30 cycles of the kapalabhati breath at one sitting.
This pranayama can make people feel lightheaded, in which case they should immediately stop and take some deep breaths. A knowledge of other pranayama techniques can help before embarking on the kapalabhati breath, because it will give the practitioner greater control over his or her breathing. The practice of other pranayama techniques will also help people know what it feels like to breathe from the abdomen, rather than from the chest.
This “cleaning breath” is not recommended for people who have recently had surgery, along with people who are pregnant and people who have abdominal trauma such as a hernia. It is also not advised for individuals with high blood pressure. Since you will ideally be practicing it under the guidance of a guru initially, you can talk to your guru about whether or not the kapalabhati breath is advisable for you; you may also want to discuss your yoga practice with your doctor.
I've been to one yoga class that included this and it was surprisingly difficult to do correctly.