Kapalabhati Pranayama Personal Practice Journal

I am someone who checks in with my breath during my interactions throughout the day as it helps me to decide whether I am calm or triggered into anxiety or fear in some way. In doing the check in it allows me to collect my thoughts, to be more compassionate towards others and to see if the tension I may be feeling in dialogue with others is coming from them or me. I do a pranayama practice at the beginning or ending of my asana practice.  My first pranayama experience as a stand-alone to set a pranayama practice only and to access its effects on my personal being. I chose Kapalabhati Pranayama (an active exhale and passive inhale in rounds of 50-100 repetitions) for my practice to do daily for five minutes for fifteen days. Eight days into this journey I needed to add in Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (inhale left nostril, exhale right nostril, inhale right nostril, exhale left nostril repeating) because I was on fire.

            For me, Kapalabhati Pranayama brought awareness to my Swadhisthana and Manipura Chakras, and I could feel this energy rising in my body until I had a fairly light feeling about myself. This high would then level off after I had finished the practice bringing me into a calm state. Overall I found this exercise to be fun as I had to laugh at myself when I would start to get into my head or overthink the practice my rhythm would no longer be natural and flow with ease. Kapalabhati was teaching me a lesson about letting go and flowing with the present moment. Around days four through eight, I started to notice little fevers in my body and assumed that I was burning off old memories and beliefs stuck in my tissues in my lower chakras of Muladhara, Swadhisthana, and Manipura. I found this intriguing and allowed my body to heal as it needed to. When I went for my monthly energy healing at the end of my session, my healer asked what I had been doing because I had a blazing fire that she worked on in my Swadhisthana and Manipura Chakras. I laughed and told her about my practice, and she suggested that I be mindful of what might be coming up. Now I am getting into this breath.

 I have seen Kapalabhati called many different things such as breath of fire, skull shinning breath and cleansing breath, and I seem to be experiencing them all. The fire burning in my lower chakras, the lightness and calm in my skull and I am confident that both of these things happening in my body are cleansing it of old patterns while embracing new ones. After recently recovering from double pneumonia (a cause from dealing with deep grief in my personal life) my ego was hurt because I could not breathe deeply and I had prided myself on my full breath it was something that I consciously worked at for years. After being in a back brace for a decade, it took me a long time to feel my breath and to break up that fascia so to see it leave me I was hurt and found myself questioning its trust. See the inspiration teaches me about faith I am confident that the in-breath will always be there, but now I was not as sure as it felt as though I was sucking air through a straw. This mindful practice of just five minutes a day of doing Kapalabhati was helping me to regain my trust of my lungs again I could feel my breath getting deeper, and it was filling me with joy.

            On day eight I started to add in three to five minutes of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama because the fire in my lower chakras was getting pretty intense and uncomfortable.  At times so much heat built that I could feel tears manifesting not fully understanding the there source of sadness but allowing the process to unfold knowing I would be lighter in my journey for letting go. I use only to focus on bringing my pita down in line with my other doshas, but now I realize that I need to pay more attention to my Vata qualities (I am a pita/vata). See my Vata qualities either seem to blaze my pitta characteristics to a fiery inferno, or it puts my fire out entirely. I realize that I am all three doshas and that I strive for a balance between them. The skin irritation on my face seems slightly better (day ten). Could this be from the combination of Nadi Shodhana balancing my hormones and the cleansing aspects of Kapalabhati? At this point, my mind is getting bored with the practice as I am about ten days in so I start to add in different body positions during the Kapalabhati portion of the breath. I did things like sitting in easy seated pose, being in twisting lunge/warrior, placing a ball under in my armpit and squeezing it between my arm and ribcage, putting a ball on the side of my neck and squeezing it between the neck and the arm, doing a seated twist, etc. The ball allowed me to explore the depth of the breath three dimensionally with more awareness.

My mental and emotional state appears to be more resilient as things seem to be rolling off my back better. But more interesting to me is that I have a greater awareness of separation when interacting with others. Such as I can see their stuff, my stuff and instead of owning both of our stuff I can honor and acknowledge the separation of lessons that need to be learned.  Another interesting interaction with others was when I was teaching my annual pranayama workshop to clients at the studio. I love Kapalabhati breath for its strengthening and toning of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles and the energizing feeling it leaves in my mind.  I found it amusing when some clients shared that the breath is exhausted (I suspected that their core was weak as these were two new customers) they and they felt tired doing it- it was a good reminder that what I believe in my practice is not always what others feel.

            I felt the benefits of both of these breaths as they helped ground and awaken the pranamaya kosha (energetic body) and clear away obstructions that where inhibiting my flow of pranayama.  I know fully understand the empowerment that a pranayama practice alone can bring to my lifestyle. The benefits that I experienced in doing this practices where enlightening.  Kapalabhati benefits that I experienced where cleansing lungs and respiratory system, strengthen and toning the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, energizing and clearing the mind, and warming of the body. Nadi Shodhana benefits that I experienced where reduced stress and anxiety, calming, balancing of hormones, and fostering of mental clarity and alertness in my mind.

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Anatomy of Breathing

 

 

 

 The three parts of the breath (prana) are the belly/diaphragm, mid-chest, and top chest. The primary muscles used in “breath” are sternocleidomastoids, scalenes, external and internal intercostal, external and internal oblique, diaphragm, rectus abdominals, and transversus abdominis. The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle, as it is always working, even when you are relaxed. Intercostals are tiny muscles between the ribs recruited for slightly forced respiration. Abdominals pull the rib cage down and push the diaphragm up so you can have an active exhalation. Quadratus lumborum is a four-sided low back muscle that pulls down hard on the bottom ribs and recruited on sharp exhalations. The pectoralis minor is tiny chest muscles that pull up on the rib cage.  The pectoralis minor is an emergency breathing muscle. Sternocleidomastoids are the prominent throat muscles that form a V-shape; they are rib cage lifters and used when you have to get something out of your trachea. Scalenes are a breathing helper as they descend the sides of the neck down to the upper ribs and can even attach to your lungs.  Their primary job is to move breathing muscles while the larger stronger muscles control movement (sternocleidomastoid, etc.) the neck, however; they can help in lifting the rib cage when needed. Prana is the energy that instills a breathing entity with life by filling it with constant movement

 

 We start a pranayama practice by learning to breathe into the three anatomical areas of inspiration in a balanced way, as this is the foundation for all breathing techniques to come. The three anatomical regions of breath are belly/ diaphragm, mid-chest, and top-chest.  As we experience the breath sensations in these three realms, we have a deeper emotional impact on the areas that we often cut ourselves off from feeling. The inspiratory muscles are sternocleidomastoids, scalenes, external intercostals, and diaphragm. The expiratory muscles are internal intercostals, external oblique, rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, and internal oblique. Together these muscles act like a breathing pump that forms a bellow around the lungs. Breath initiates the movement in our body. The Upanishads expressed this evolving awareness about the intimacy the breath is with all functions of the body through the vayus. Breath is movement. Inspiration leads us through our life, yet we often do not recognize or acknowledge it. Our breath teaches us about trust, union, and the present moment.

            The belly/diaphragm portion of the three-part breath gives us the experience that our breath wraps the body three dimensionally.  The solar plexus, or the third chakra, which is the “capital city of the self,” is related to this part of the breath. The crura of the diaphragm (two tendinous structures that extend below the diaphragm to the vertebral column) continue primarily along the spine all the way down into the pelvic floor. It is the primary inspiratory muscle. The diaphragm also plays a significant role in stabilizing our core. (Calais-Germain, 2006)  You can think about it as the roof of your home, the foundation being the inner thighs, the main floor being the pelvic floor and the sides of the house being your internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum and transverse abdominus.  You might also think of the diaphragm as a pump at the base of the lungs that separates and connects the thorax and abdomen. The edges of the diaphragm attach to the internal outline of the ribcage.  The top of the dome is level with ribs four and five and slightly higher than the xiphoid process at the back.  The top is also level with thoracic vertebrae seven (T7). The back of the diaphragm formed by tendons that attach to lumber vertebrae three (L3) leaving the attachments from front to back very different. This fibrous center is called the central tendon, which is how the diaphragm is attached to itself mostly.  The muscular fibers give the diaphragm its dome shape and originate at the central tendon. The sternal fibers are short and attach to the back of the xiphoid process; costal fibers connect to the last five costal arcs and link to ribs ten through twelve; the vertebral fibers end at the first three lumbar vertebras called the pillars of the diaphragm. The lungs connected to the diaphragm through the pleura, and the heart rests on the central tendon.  The pericardium also attaches to the diaphragm.  The stomach attaches to the diaphragm on its anterior lateral surface and the liver attaches to the lateral, superior and posterior surfaces. The kidneys, spleen, pancreas and abdominal aorta and flexures of the large intestine have direct contact with the diaphragm as well.  The diaphragm acts as a piston between the thorax and abdomen. The diaphragm uses its attachments to flatten during inhalation, as the internal organs are slow to move the ribs expand to make room for the lungs, and it uses this pressure to return. (Calais-Germain, 2006)

            Breathing into the belly/ diaphragm directs the breath sensation lower in the body. Emotions such as fear, anxiety (breath are quick and shallow and can produce hyperventilation), stress and poor postural habits can inhibit the natural breath here.  An example of a short, fifteen-minute routine to help explore this part of your breath is:

  1. starting in restorative mountain brook pose for six minutes,
  2. sitting in easy seated pose for three minutes,
  3. finishing in therapeutic crocodile for six minutes.

Healing mountain brook pose is laying supine (on back) with a bolster under the knees, a neck pillow under the neck and a folded blanket under the ribs. Place a hand on the navel and one on the heart allowing yourself to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe. Breathe in slowly through the nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand while the chest remains fairly still. Then tighten your stomach muscles as they fall toward the floor.  Exhaling, the navel hand will move downward while the chest hand remains mostly still.  Feel the expansion on all sides of the body. (Keller, 2015)

In easy-seated pose (sitting camper style), with sitz bones on a bolster, place a yoga strap around the bottom ribs (snug and not too tight) just below the sternum. As you inhale, allow the strap to expand from the force of the ribs pushing into the belt as if the ribs lifted like a can-can girl’s skirt. Notice how the breath still moves on all sides of the body but that it feels different from when you were laying down. (Keller, 2015)

In restorative crocodile pose, you are prone (face down).  Place a folded blanket on your back spanning from the last ribs to the waist, the feet can rest on a rolled up mat, and you can put your head on your stacked flat palms. Feel the belly moving into the blanket. Notice how you have a greater awareness of your breath moving to the sides and back. Return to corpse pose to reflect on your practice. (Keller, 2015)

            If the diaphragm does not do its job, the upper chest muscles will take over such as the pectoralis minor and scalenes.  These are the smaller, deeper muscles that lie against the rib cage, which can assist with respiration: scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, serratus anterior, pectoral muscles, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae. For the mid-chest portion of the three-part breath, the intercostals, pectoralis minor, and serratus muscles have a primary role in inhalation.

The minor pectoralis attaches at the coracoid process (and the third-through-fifth ribs) and runs down, and in, like a fan that lifts the ribs forward on inhale. If the shoulders round, or the spine is in a kyphosis position, this muscle is underdeveloped. The intercostals are inspiratory muscles that lay between the rib spaces in a criss-cross pattern. The external intercostals run downward and forward. The internal intercostal muscles move downward and backward. Also, they are known as global expiratory muscles because of the contractile action.  The intercostals bring the space close together, having the ribs slightly glide on each other so when one rib moves that neighboring rib follows movement until the entire ribcage has moved.  The serratus anterior is a large muscle that spreads parallel over ribs one-through-ten like serrated fingers. It starts from the shoulder blade on the internal scapular edge, glides over the surface and skirts the thorax. Its job is move ribs five-through-ten lifting them like a bucket handle and (by creating a large rib posture) it helps with inspiration, slows the pace of exhalation and makes a firm foundation for which the neck can rest. The serratus posterior superior originates at the spinous processes of cervical vertebra seven (C7) and thoracic vertebra one through four (T1-T4). It forms a small layer that descends outwards and inserts into the first four ribs at the posterior costal angle. This muscle assists with inhalation into the back by lifting the ribs from the vertebrae.  It completes the top action of the levatores costarum. (Calais-Germain, 2006)

            Breathing into the mid-chest region directs the breath around the heart. Emotions such as grief (forced in-breath with a long, slow exhale that may be like a sigh, moaning, or weeping), anger (slow, shallow in-breath with forceful exhales), depression (both inhale and exhale are shallow and short (lifeless)), fear and boredom (shallow/ little sensation) can inhibit breath here.

 

An example of a short, fifteen-minute routine to help explore this part of your inspiration is:

  1. restorative fish pose for nine minutes;
  2. easy seated pose doing madhyam pranayama for three minutes(intra-costal mid breathing where the breath is restricted and controlled by the middle lobes of the lungs),
  3. shoulder upper-back release on a chair for three minutes.

In the restorative fish pose, laying supine with a bolster starting at the ribs and following the length of the spine (ribs to head) while supporting the head, hands can be on the sides of the ribs. Press the hands into the ribs then breathe into your hands to expand the mid-chest. You may notice that this takes a considerable amount of effort.  Notice how just below the breastbone your belly draws slightly in and up as your mid-chest expands.  (Farhi, 1996)

Sitting in comfortable seated pose, place the hands on the sides of the ribs, palms on your sides with fingers facing the front, relax the body around the breath and inhale to expand the ribs three-dimensionally and then exhale and squeeze it all in. Notice how the hands move away from each other and then toward each other. (Farhi, 1996)

Placing a chair back against the wall with the seat facing you, kneel with your elbows (shoulder width apart) and forehead on the seat of the chair, allow the weight to rest on the outer sides of the elbow allowing the shoulder girdle to broaden while keeping the knees under the hips. Breathe into your mid-chest and back while pressing the elbows downward as you reach your seat away from the chair. Notice how with each breath you feel your armpits and mid-back begin to release. Return to corpse pose to reflect on your practice. (Farhi, 1996)

            The top-chest portion of the three-part breath is from the upper-most part of the sternum (manubrium) to the top of the first rib. The scalenes are the primary breath-mover here.  The scalenes extend from the transverse process cervical spine descending slightly outward and forward to the first two ribs. We have three different scalene muscles, the anterior, medius and posterior scalenus.  Their job is to contribute to very high respiratory movements through the lateral pull on these ribs. (Calais-Germain, 2006)

            Emotions that can inhibit top-chest breathing are impatience (short uncoordinated breath), guilt (restricted heavy breath/ almost suffocating), remorse, and fear (breath is more guarded, shorter breaths or holding breath). An example of a short, fifteen-minute routine to help explore this part of your breath is:

  1. Shoulder clock for ninety seconds, on each side,
  2. easy seated pose for three minutes doing adhyam pranayama and
  3. supine twist for ninety seconds,  on each side.

In shoulder clock, stand at a right angle to the wall, feet hips width apart about eight inches away from the wall (the closer you are the more sensation you will feel). Extend your arm up the wall like a hand of a clock pointing to twelve o’clock after thirty seconds move the arm to one o’clock and then move to two and three o’clock.  Do both sides. Do you feel the breath moving into your armpits and lifting your collarbones? Notice the sides of your body.  Which chest is tighter and which side has fullness.  (Farhi, 1996)

In easy-seated pose for adhyam pranayama (control the higher, superior lobes of the lungs) place your hands just below the collarbones, breathe into your hands and notice how the collarbones and shoulder blades move laterally and upward on the inhale in the body. Allow the eyes and throat to be relaxed. Breathe with ease and let the body relaxed around the breath.  (Farhi, 1996)

In the supine twist (with knees bent and arms out to the side) look toward the bent knees and begin to breathe into the armpit and top-chest. Notice which side of the body is tighter and which is fluid. Finish in corpse poses to reflect on your practice. (Farhi, 1996)

            It is important to remember the iliopsoas in combination with the quadratus lumborum and the diaphragm form a kinetic chain to integrate upper and lower body activity with breath. A short and manageable routine allows practical, proper biomechanical techniques to take hold of the physical body. Remember the vayus (vital winds of prana) are the doorways to our meditation practices providing a progressive path of focus. “Breath is central to yoga because breath is essential to living and yoga is about life.” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya 1888-1989  Breath is an effortless affair, however, when we find ourselves in chronic tension, loss of sensory awareness of being in the body we develop complicated habitual patterns that disease can find homes. Hold your breath for a moment and try to feel feelings of joy, happiness, and love. When we are restricting our breath through tension or stuffing emotions down, we are obstructing our breath. When we feel love, joy, kindness and compassion we are allowing our breath to be free, unobstructed and energizing our being. We have the power to create the life we want our breath. Our attitude is critical and can change the way we breathe and do life.

 

 

 

 

References

Calais-Germain, B. (2006). Anatomy of Breathing. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, 79-105

Farhi, D. (1996). The breathing book: Good health and vitality through essential breath work.
            New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Keller, D. (2015). Refining the Breath: Pranayama the art of the awakened breath.

South Riding, VA: Do Yoga Productions.

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