Breathing is a central part of any yoga practice, to center and ground, and really find your steady connection to Spirit. There are many different yogic breathing techniques, but one I absolutely love is Breath of Fire, a form of Pranayama Breathing.
Breath of Fire (also called Kapalbhati, or Skull Luster) is a Kundalini Yoga meditation technique that cleanses the lungs and sinuses, energizes the body and mind, and helps the body to heal and build strength.
It’s VERY important that you practice Breath of Fire correctly as there are some restrictions for certain conditions, and your technique is important! Let me tell you a little more about Breath of Fire, and how to practice it.
In this post:
What is Pranayama Breathing?
When Kundalini yoga teacher and guru Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini yoga to the United States, he brought many different teachings — among them breathing techniques to help yogis relax, heal, and reach higher planes of consciousness. Breath of Fire is just one of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini teachings.
This breathing is used to strengthen the nervous system, cleanse the bloodstream, energize and wake up the other systems, and increase your physical endurance and movement potential. As a kundalini yoga teacher, it’s one of my favorites.
Breath of Fire uses your diaphragm like a bellows for a fireplace; you’re pumping new breath rapidly in and out of your lungs in a steady rhythm that is very similar to a dog panting! The rapid movement of oxygen stimulates your body, mind, and spirit.
Is Breath of Fire Dangerous?
When done properly, Breath of Fire (Kapalbhati) is not dangerous. However, it is important to have a strong pranayama practice before you incorporate this breathing technique into your yoga practice. Because the practice uses the stomach muscles to sharply push into the diaphragm, it’s also important to be in good physical condition while practicing this technique.
Another issue the commonly occurs, though is not dangerous, is difficulty breathing through blocked nasal passages when trying to practice Kapalbhati. Because our mucous lining along our nasal passages can become thick, especially overnight as our bodies remove toxins through mucous, it can sometimes feel uncomfortable to use this breath technique first thing in the morning.
Lastly, it is important to develop strong lung capacity before trying this pranayama breathing technique for more than 5 to 10 seconds. You can build your lung capacity by working through beginner-friendly breathing exercises, like Ujjayi Breath and the full yogic breath.
Breath of Fire can be risky for certain folks. If you have cardiac problems or high blood pressure, any spinal disorders, have a respiratory infection, or vertigo, you should NOT practice Breath of Fire. For women specifically, if you’re pregnant, don’t do Breath of Fire.
Is Kapalbhati the same as Breath of Fire Pranayama?
Kapalbhati Pranayama is the Sanskrit name for Breath of Fire. It is an advanced breathing exercise that uses the muscles in the abdomen to forcefully push onto your diaphragm, causing the air in your lungs to come out through your nostrils quickly. Unlike other breathing techniques, fire breathing has a passive inhale, where oxygen is naturally sucked into your lungs to fill the empty space that your exhalation just created.
For an even more advanced Kapalbhati Pranayama breathing practice, you can use alternate nostril breathing with your fire breathing. To do this, practice fire breathing on the left nostril 10 times before switching to do 10 breaths through the right nostril. When paired with your daily asana practice, you can have powerful results.
Benefits of Breath of Fire
Breath of Fire can be extremely beneficial to your health. Unlike long deep breathing, which can be soothing to the nervous system, this Kundalini breath is energizing… which is why it is the breath of FIRE!
1) Cleanse and release toxins and deposits from the lungs and blood vessels.
Breath of Fire helps you circulate your blood faster and more efficiently through your lungs and blood vessels, which is really helpful in removing the buildup of substances and other chemicals from your systems. Our bodies use the lungs and mucous lining to trap toxins that float around in our bodies. Once there is enough mucous, the body pushes it up and out of our bodies, most often through our nostrils or to be swallowed back into our bellies. So though this yoga breathing technique is an energizing one, it is also incredibly cleansing as it helps support the elimination process.
2) Build physical endurance and bring pain relief.
If you get really sore after yoga class or exercise, Breath of Fire can help. A 1994 study found that pranayamic breathing helps athletes reduce the amount of lactic acid that builds up after exercising. Lactic acid is what causes muscle soreness, so when you practice this prana technique, you are removing the very thing that causes muscle pain. Not only that, but you’re also putting more oxygen into your body and cleansing toxins from your system. More oxygen makes it easier to recover and relax, which helps to reduce pain and strengthens physical endurance.
3) Strengthen the nervous system to resist stress.
There are two functions that are happening with this breathing exercise. First, you are directly affecting your nervous system when you use any yoga breathing technique, which helps regulate your response to stress. Secondly, your pranayama practice helps build and direct your Kundalini energy, which is said to help you manage all of life and the stress that comes with it. Pranayama breathing connects you to your higher self, which can help take you out of a negative or spiraling cycle that cause symptoms of anxiety. Breath of Fire strengthens your vibration to an easy, neutral state.
4) Get rid of addictive cravings for drugs, smoking, and bad foods.
In addition to clearing toxins and other chemicals out of your system, you can also substitute Breath of Fire for addictive cravings, both of which will relax your body and brain, and help you overcome desires for addictive habits.
5) Strengthen the navel chakra and get a massive ab workout.
Forget straining your neck with traditional crunches. Breath of Fire tones your deepest set of abs (the transverse abdominis) and also your solar plexus. This is because this fast breathing technique relies on the abdominal muscles to push the exhalation out. When done rapidly, as with this pranayama exercise, you are repeatedly flexing your abdominal muscles in quick succession. As you can imagine, this is a major ab workout. If you’re someone who wants to be able to step their foot through from downward dog or float up into inversions, this breathing technique is going to get you there.
6) Crazy energizing!
Ever feel you’re in a “blah” cycle? Maybe at around 4 P.M. every day? Breath of Fire is even better than coffee. It stimulates your whole system, energizes your brain, and it’s so easy. You’ll feel as high as you do after a 30-minute run after only doing it for three minutes. That’s certainly a time-saving hack!
7) No mat, props or flexibility required.
Almost everyone can do Breath of Fire, regardless of their age or level of flexibility. This breath can keep you in shape even if you’re injured or bedridden.
How to Practice Breath of Fire
When you first start practicing Breath of Fire, keep in mind that you BUILD on this practice. If you’re a beginner, start with 30 seconds at a time, and breathe at a slower, steady rate.
It’s a common mistake for first-timers to want to practice for two or three minutes – that’s too long! You can start to feel light-headed, and maybe a little dizzy. Also, Breath of Fire doesn’t have to be fast to be effective! Form is always preferable to speed.
Other common mistakes are breathing through the mouth instead of using the nose, keeping tension in your face or tongue, clenching the jaw, or tension in the fists or shoulders.
Sit in place with a straight spine, with palms resting on your knees in an open palm mudra. Create room in your middle body, between your heart and your solar plexus. Take a few slow deep breaths to relax. Your brow is relaxed, and shoulders, chest and rib cage muscles should be in a neutral state. You want to relax the rest of the body and let the diaphragm do the work!
Step 1: Start Panting Like a Dog!
That’s right, like a dog! That’s the rhythm of breathing you want: short, quick, in and out.
When you inhale, your belly expands. When you exhale, your belly contracts back — a great way to test this is to put your hand onto your belly. With each inhale, your belly presses into your palm. On the exhale your belly snaps back into your spine!
Make your inhale and exhale the same pace and equal length. The inhale is passive, and the exhale is powerful.
Step 2: Quicken Your Breathing
Once you’ve got the form down, close your mouth and start to breathe through the nose — two to three new breaths per second. Make your breathing slightly faster, keeping your breath at an equal pace on the inhale and the exhale.
If you’re a beginner, slow it down! One to two breaths per second will work just fine.
It doesn’t have to be fast to be effective. If it’s hard for your belly and abs, you’re doing it right.
Step 3: Place Your Hands Into Mudras
Once you’re comfortable, you can place your hands into a mudra. You can rest them on your lap in Gyan Mudra, or if you want to take it to the next level, you can bring your arms into the full Kundalini Ego Eradicator.
Step 4: Return to Natural Flow
Once you’ve finished, slow and stop forcing your breathing, and meditate on the breath. Let your breath rest in its natural flow.
If your arms are in ego eradicator, bring the thumbs towards one another, draw your navel up and in, and pull your groin up and away from the floor. You’re doing all three powerful yogic locks to hold the breath in! Stay here for five to eight seconds, and then relax into your natural flow of breath with the arms resting palms up on the thighs.
It’s common to sense a subtle buzz, a glow, or some tingling in the body and face after Breath of Fire! If you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or giddy, slow your pace the next time you practice. If you practiced for two to three minutes, reduce your time.
Breath of Fire Fast Facts:
- Sanskrit Name: Kapalbhati
- Contraindications (who should *not* do this breath):
- Cardiac problems
- Spinal disorders (like a painful, herniated disc in the low back)
- Respiratory infections
- Pregnant women