If you’ve been attending yoga classes for a while, you may have been exposed to several types of pranayama, or breathing exercises. With the sanskrit names and the various translations, it might be hard to keep some of them straight. Throw in the fact that even some yoga teachers use the various titles interchangeably, and the chance for misunderstanding increases exponentially.
Three that tend to get mixed up frequently are the three types of invigorating pranayama: Skull-shining breath (kapalabhati), bellow’s breath (bhastrika), and breath of fire. Go ahead, google one of those names and you’ll see them being interchanged with one of the others in hundreds of articles.
The cause of the confusion is in their similarities. All three are vigorous, faster than most types of pranayama, and increase the heat in the body. They tend to sound similar as they all have a forceful exhale through the nostrils. However, there are subtle differences:
- Kapalabhati or “skull-shining” breath: active exhale, passive inhale; pumping the diaphragm.
- Bhastrika or “bellow’s” breath: vigorous and even inhale and exhale, sometimes involving movement of the body.
- Breath of Fire: like Bhastrika except the tempo is speeded up (think of a puppy panting but with the mouth closed), often used in poses or in conjunction with rapid movement.
In the following video, I demonstrate the distinctions between each type of breath and give a sample of the exercises/movements that might accompany each one.