A recent article headline suggests that the widespread use of Kapalabhati pranayama (“skull-polishing breath”) in India—promoted by Swami Ramdev’s popular television campaigns and yoga camps—is dangerous and may lead to death, echoing lesser admonitions voiced by B.K.S. Iyengar and other yogis concerned about the impact of selling Kapalabhati as a quick fix.
Acharya Agyaatdarshan, a yogi from Delhi, shares that “Kapal-kriya is the process of releasing prana or life breath, after death. Kapalabhati is controlling one’s lifespan through one’s breath,” he notes; “simply put, get it wrong, and you shorten your lifespan." Long-term Iyengar practitioner Ashwini Gokhale likens Kapalabhati to a dose of strong antibiotics which should only be prescribed by a doctor, rather than the cure-all pill it’s currently marketed as.
A 2008 study by the Asian Heart Institute found a 100% correlation between 31 cases of heart attack and the “reckless” practice of Kapalabhati, although these results should be interpreted cautiously without more information about study design and details.
Kapalabhati, a cleansing and purifying breathing practice, is characterized by slow or rapid repetition of passive inhalations with a soft belly, followed by a sharp exhalation, during which time the belly is simultaneously drawn in and up towards the spine. This pranayama, when practiced vigorously and rapidly, is activating to the sympathetic nervous system and generates bodily heat. Practiced more gently, with no more than 10-15 repetitions per minute, sympathetic activation is minimized.
Considerably more research remains to be conducted on Kapalabhati’s safety and efficacy. Promising are the results of a study commissioned by senior doctors with the Yoga Institute in Mumbai; their findings indicate that the pranayama, “when taught under the guidance of medical and yoga experts,” showed benefits in controlling diabetes, obesity, asthma, energizing the mind, and improving depression.
What does this all boil down to? Pranayama is powerful, and should be taught and employed with attention to individual medical concerns and constitution. It is not intended for mass consumption and should be taught and initially supervised by a qualified yoga instructor or expert. Like all powerful techniques if Kapalabhati is used incorrectly it can have serious side effects.
Do you practice Kapalabhati? Have you noticed any adverse or beneficial effects on your health?