I recently got a question from one of our O2 Fundamental students about the difference between these two ancient Pranayama techniques:
Bhastrika, also called “Bellows Breathing” and “Breath of Fire,”
Kapalbhati, also called “Skull Shining Breath.”
First, let’s notice whatever names they were given, they are perfect examples of Conscious Breathing Exercises, aka Breathwork Techniques or Breathwork practices.
They can be practiced alone or combined in tandem. They both help strengthen the lungs, and both have contra-indications or precautions when it comes to menstruation, pregnancy, hernia, high blood pressure, heart conditions, and epilepsy. (Be gentle!)
With Bhastrika or bellows breathing, both the inhales and the exhales are active or controlled. The breathing can be described as powerful, rapid, equalized. Breathe through your nose.
The practice is meant to be energizing, activating, stimulating, enlivening. The focus or orientation is on chest breathing. The mind should be relaxed, quiet and focused.
This exercise can be done sitting or standing, and very often the arms are used. Reach straight up over your head with open hands as if ‘grabbing’ energy with the inhale. Then close your fists and pull your arms back down sharply with the exhale, bringing your elbows to the sides of your lower chest.
There are variations on this practice. Most often the palms are facing away from you, but it can also be done with palms facing toward you. And it can also be done with hands resting on your legs, palms up, with index finger and thumbs touching (“Gyan mudra”).
It’s good to start slow and do 3 sets of 10 repetitions. Between sets, breathe naturally and practice breath meditation and relaxation. Get comfortable with a pace of 1 breath per second, and work up to 15, 20, 25, 30, 40 reps.
The final set can be followed by a long silent pause before returning to natural breathing.
The breathing is powerful, but the nervous system remains calm and balanced. A good intention to form while doing Kaplbhati is to embody joy and lightness.
Kapalbhati or ‘skull shining breath’ is belly or diaphragm oriented. And the exhale is active and controlled, while the inhale is passive or reflexive.
This is a good morning mind purification ritual. Learn to coordinate your abdominal muscles and diaphragmatic movement—with no tension or unnecessary effort.
It feels like you are using your belly to sharply blow your nose. And a variation on this is to breathe through your mouth, making a ‘hoo’ sound on the exhale. The intention is purification or active detoxing.
The same advice applies, start slowly and gradually build up the pace, intensity, and number of reps. And always practice pure awareness and natural breathing between sets.
So, in summary, Bhastrika focuses on the chest. The inhale and exhale are both active and controlled, and the purpose is to energize and enliven yourself.
With Kapalbhati we focus on the abdomen, the diaphragm. The exhale is active and controlled while the inhale is passive or reflexive, and the intention is cleansing or purification.
I have not recorded a video demonstration, and so I suggest you do a Google/YouTube search to see how different yogis and teachers do it.
Don’t get hung up on the Sanskrit terms, although some people love showing off their yoga vocabulary! Focus on coordinating the forces, dynamics, and structures. Remember it’s a meditation not just an exercise.
Good luck in your practice, and many blessings on your path!
Love and blessings to all,
(Guchu Ram Singh)