Kapalabhati means skull shining, and it is the sixth or last of the shat karma kriyas, which are important purification practices found in the Hatha Yoga system. The Hatha Yoga system acknowledges that our bodies are made from our past karmas. Our unresolved negative karmas can accumulate as toxins and cause an obscuration of the true reality resulting in ignorance, sadness, and all forms of disease: physical, mental and spiritual. The Kriya practices, which are found in yoga and ayurveda are closely related traditions and have developed alongside each other.
Ayurveda provides healing for the body and mind and yoga depends upon a healthy body and mind to attain cosmic realization of the eternal Self beyond the body and mind. All bodies in the physical world are fueled by prana, which manifests as the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. These come together to create three basic constitutional types, or doshas: Vata, Pittaand Kapha. Air and Ether create vata, fire and air create pitta, and water and earth create kapha. Imbalances of these doshas are imbalances of wind, bile and phlegm, respectively. Balancing these elements is essential for physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Balancing these doshas is a psycho-kinetic skill, which when developed, can lead to the direct perception of reality.
The Practice: There are three forms of kapalabhati. Vatakrama (wind cleansing), Vyutkarma(sinus cleansing) and Shitkarma (muscus cleansing), which are performed in the following ways:
Vatakrama: This form is appropriate to practice in a group classroom setting. Sit in a comfortable position, inhale deeply into both nostrils to begin, then exhale sharply, lifting the diaphragm, in order to emphasize the exhale, allowing the inhale to come as a passive response. Start with 3 rounds of 10 ‘pumps’ each and gradually, as you gain proficiency, increase the number of pumps and the number of rounds. Keep the physical eyes closed and gaze internally toward the third eye (ajna chakra). Vatakrama can also be done through alternate nostrils, by using the right hand in Vishnu mudra to direct the passage of air through the left or right nostrils. Although breathing is used in this technique it is not a pranayama practice and there should be no breath retention.
Vyutkrama: This practice is similar to jala neti. Take a warm bowl of mildly salted water, scoop some water into the palm of your hand and sniff the water through the nostrils. Let the water flow down into the mouth and then spit the water out from the mouth. Repeat several times.
Shitkrama: This practice is the reverse of vyutkrama. You take a mouthful of warm salty water, push it up through the nose and blow it out. The sound it makes is the sound of ‘sheet’.
On a physiological level, kapalabhati strengthens the immune system and the will to live through balancing the kapha dosha by removing excess phlegm from the tissues of the body. This makes the body of the yogi as beautiful and as attractive as the god of love, Kamadeva(cupid).
On a psycho-spiritual level, kapalabhati, due to the friction facilitated by air rubbing against the mucus membranes, causes an electrical charge which results in an upward attraction, and pulls energy toward the brain and higher centers. With each lift of the diaphragm muscle, Kapalabhati purifies the manipura chakra and brings about true Self-confidence as the ego personality is offered to the supreme Self with each exhale, resulting in a clear mind, a radiant halo and a vibrant aura.
Note: References to Kapalbhati can be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Chapter 2.35) and the Gheranda Samhita (Chapter 1.54-59)