By Saraswathi Vasudevan
Overdoing kapalabhati can undo its benefits and unleash a host of side-effects. Saraswathi Vasudevan shows how to practise it safely
The one yogic practice that seems to have taken India by storm is kapalabhati. It gets done fast with little physical exertion, and has the added attraction of promising easy weight loss! Unfortunately, its very benefits go against it, because it tempts practitioners to overdo it, and in the process reap ill effects.
Firstly, kapalabhati is not pranayama. Kapalabhati is a kriya (cleansing technique), and is focussed on clearing the upper respiratory tract of phlegm and dust particles as a preparation for pranayama practice. It also helps to reduce heaviness and dross, and is only advised for such purposes.
Many practise Kapalabhati excessively, often going up to 500-600 cycles in one sitting! This leads to serious side-effects.
Kapalabhati can increase blood pressure if you are hypertensive. It increases body heat – people report burning eyes and burning in the food pipe, sometimes all the way down to the anus! It deranges the digestive fire (you may find yourself eating too much), affects sleep, disturbs the nervous system, dries up the tissues, weakens the abdominal muscles causing prolapse of lower abdominal organs, and urinary incontinence. Excessive use of this technique can also agitate the mind.
Kapalabhati has to be practised with caution, under guidance, for people with hypertension and heart conditions. It is contraindicated for eye conditions like glaucoma, neurological conditions like epilepsy, most digestive problems like acidity, ulcers and gastro-esophagal reflux, and hernia (some of these problems may even be precipitated by excessive kapalabhati practice). People with severe low back pain and neck pain should avoid this technique. Pregnant women or those suffering from menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding), should also avoid it.
Here is how to practise kapalabhati in a safe and effective manner.
Sit with your back straight and chin down. Take a few deep breaths drawing the lower abdomen in and up with each exhalation and inhale from the upper chest downwards filling into the upper abdomen. Slowly increase the speed of the breath from 3 seconds inhale, 3 seconds exhale to 2 seconds to 1 second inhale and 1 second exhale forcefully exhaling through both nostrils (like blowing the nostrils) actively engaging the abdomen – pulling in from the lower abdomen, on exhalation flushing the air out of the lungs. Inhalation is more passive in Kapalabhati so allow the upper abdomen to come out rapidly. You can vary the speed based on your comfort level. Do ONLY upto 3-4 cycles of 36-40 breaths and intersperse each cycle with 6-8 slow breaths with long exhalation. Since you will experience hyperventilation (lowering of carbon dioxide levels in the blood) you can hold your breath after exhalation for longer time after each round of KB and during the slow breathing phase. You can feel the mind becoming still.
When practised in moderation, KB clears the upper respiratory tract for pranayama – mild sinusitis, phlegm and congestion in nostrils, or excessive sneezing are magically reduced through KB. The technique increases metabolic rate. Recent research studies show that extended breath retention after exhalation following KB has been found to improve oxygen uptake and delays degenerative changes in the body.
About the author : Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapist trainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specialises in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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