By Geeta Maraj
September 24th 2014 Edition
We are now accustomed to hearing the word ‘yoga’ mentioned on a daily basis. In fact, yoga has become a part of our regular vocabulary, and rightfully so, as it stems from ancient Eastern teachings originated in India around 3300 BCE. Yoga remains unchallenged for its multifarious benefits to the mind, the body and the spirit.
One yogic breath which can improve lung strength and prevent heart issues is known as kapalabhati or the rapid breath. Though this type of breathing exercise may sound bizarre to the ear, its benefits to the heart and lungs are unmatched.
Kapalabhati is a combination of two Sanskrit words: ‘kapala’ meaning ‘skull,’ and ‘bhati’ meaning ‘shine’. This ‘skull shine’ breathing exercise is basically done to cleanse the lungs and create better concentration. In conjunction, it gives the heart a massage while also strengthening the lungs.
To perform this type of yogic breath, you have to make a sniffing sound loudly through your nostrils as if you are trying to blow your nose without a tissue. If you are to imagine that your body is rigid and that there is a fly on the tip of your nose which you need to get rid of and all you can do is sniff as loudly as possible in hope that it flies off – then you have figured out how to perform this beneficial breath. While the rapid breath bears a similarity to blowing your nose, the exhalation is forceful. It is through this vigorous exhalation that the heart gets a massage as the diaphragm is pushing against the lungs and the heart.
The diaphragm is a sheet like muscle which separates the heart and lungs from the abdominal cavity and is paramount to respiration. When the diaphragm contracts, air is drawn into the lungs. Similarly when the diaphragm expands, air is pushed out of the lungs. Our ability to contract and expand our diaphragm with force is what helps to keep our heart and lungs strong – preventing heart disease and respiratory issues.
To perform kapalabhati you must sit upright, keeping the spine straight. Once this is done, your firstly exhale till your abdominal muscles are fully contracted and you have pushed all the stale air out of your lungs. After which you inhale deeply and then breathe out again. Your next inhale should be an in breath to fill your lungs to three quarter capacity. This breath is then exhaled forcefully through your nostrils as if you are sniffing loudly. Once this is done, you breathe in a regular full breath again. This is called a single kapalabhati exhalation, and at the point when you exhale forcefully, you should feel your entire abdominal area instantly contract.
Once you become comfortable with this type of breath, you can begin to do double exhalations or double sniffs – meaning when you exhale forcefully, you exhale twice before you inhale a regular breath again. With time you can build up to triple exhalations per in breath, and eventually you can exhale repeatedly for up to 20 or 30 times before you inhale a regular breath again. When you are doing this breath for extended repetitions do not fear that your lungs will run out of air to exhale. Once you forcefully push air out of your lungs, though passive recoil, air equally enters your lungs without you purposely breathing in, therefore you are able to repeatedly exhale forcefully without running out of breath to exhale.
This type of breath can be practiced at any time, but is best performed in the early morning as a way to sharpen your concentration and focus. If you have suffered a heart attack, or have any heart ailment, or respiratory issues, you should only practice this breath in single exhalations. While this type of breathing can have benefits to persons with such ailments, it is best to seek medical advice prior to practicing, and more so, to practice this breath under the supervision of a qualified yoga therapist.
From the young to the very aged, this breath by far is one which stands the test of time in sharpening our focus, while massaging and strengthening our heart and lungs.