Bhastrika or Kapalabhati – what’s the difference?

Long before the West began to obsess with the physical practice of yoga, pranayama (breath work) was an integral part of any yoga practice.  The Sage Patanjali described pranayama as one of the 8 limbs of yoga.  An essential step on the road to deep meditative states. These days pranayama techniques may be a small part of a yoga class if at all.  And it is even more rare that the techniques of Bhastrika or Kapalabhati would be practiced in a class.


Bhastrika (bellows breath) involves short, sharp, forced inhalations and exhalations practiced rapidly, using both the thoracic (chest) and abdominal (belly)cavities. Thoracic on forced inhale, abdominal on forced exhale.  BUT as our inhales and exhales get faster and faster, they become centred in the thoracic cavity.

This technique increases oxygen saturation in the brain, which is why we might feel lightheaded when practicing. It increases alkalinity in the body and speeds up blood circulation to every part of the body. This increased circulation improves our resistance to the cold.  It also purifies and ejects excess fire/heat in the body.

The practice works not only works on a physical level, but also psychologically and energetically.  It is said to break through the 3 granthis (energetic knots along the spine) described in The Yoga Kundalini Upanishad, fast tracking spiritual growth for the practitioner. It also raises kundalini and opens the Chakras. Whilst the granthis are described as energetic knots and Chakras as energetic hubs, they can also be considered from a psychological perspective as part of the usual human conditions that most of us face from survival to self – actualisation as described in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


Kapalbhati (skull shining breath) has also been around for eons. The technique involves short, sharp exhalations practiced rapidly.  When this happens, the effort is in the abdominal cavity rather than the thoracic cavity as in Bhastrika.  The practice reverses our natural breathing process and is extremely calming on the central nervous system.

Kapalabhati rapidly increases digestive fire, creating internal heat. Adding breath retention (kumbhaka) to the practice, creates more heat in the body. The scriptures do not write about Kapalabhati piercing the 3 granthis, opening Chakras or raising kundalini.  So whilst energetically this practice differs from Bhastrika, it has it’s own benefits.

Often Kapalabhati is a preparation practice for Bhastrika. Bhastrika is an advanced pranayama practice. It should always be practiced with a teacher in the early stages as it can have detrimental effects for the practitioner if practiced incorrectly.

Both practices build our lung capacity and boost our immune responses.

Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga – Gregor Maehle
Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha – Swami Satyananda Saraswati