Yoga for Meditators: Fighting to stay awake?


In Ayurveda, the time between 4 and 8am is associated with balance, peace, purity, and clarity – the quality of nature also referred to as Sattva. This is said to be the best time to meditate. However, staying awake and what more alert in the wee hours of the morning can be challenging. More often than not, my morning meditation sessions have been associated with dullness and much nodding.

The introduction of Kapalabhati to my morning routine has helped me fully utilize the Sattva hours by keeping the mind clear and alert during meditation. Kapalabhati comes from two Sanskrit words: kapala means “skull” and bhati translates to “shining”. Together, the word describes a technique that cleanses the skull. This technique purifies, invigorates, and rejuvenates the body and mind. It expels stale air and increases oxygen to cells, purifying blood in the process. Upon waking, Kapalabhati likens a splash of icy cold water on one’s face. For such an effect, one can practice in the morning immediately upon waking, preferably followed soon after with meditation. Here’s how it is done as described in Science of Pranayama by Swami Sivananda Saraswati:
Roll off bed. Brush teeth because you don’t want to be inhaling that bad breath. This practice needs to be done on an empty stomach or at least 4 hours after food. So, don’t consume water and food just yet.  
Get into the lotus pose (Padmasana) or half lotus pose (Ardha Padmasana) with palms facing downwards on top of each knee. A normal cross-legged posture does the trick as well. Keep your spine erect throughout the practice but maintain its natural curvature.
Kapalabhati involves passive inhalation and explosive exhalations. Here are the steps:
  • First, take a deep yogic breath filling your lungs completely by expanding your lower abdomen, stomach, chest, rib cage, and back.
  • Next, exhale by contracting your lower abdominal muscles (between pubis and naval) while simultaneously lifting the pelvic floor muscles (technique also known as mulabandha; mula = root; bandha = lock). One should be able to clearly see the lower abdomen going inwards while the upper abdomen remains stationary. This forces air out of the lungs (explosive exhalation). Do check that you are contracting the lower abdominal muscles and not the entire abdomen. The latter should not be concave. Also, ensure that the contraction of the pelvic floor muscles and lower abdomen are in sync. For beginners, each exhalation can lasts for up to a second.
  • Release both the abdominal muscles and mula bandha. This movement naturally sucks air back into the lungs (passive inhalation). This makes one set.
Week 1 – If you are new, begin with 10 sets in the morning.
Week 2 – Add another session of 10 sets in the evening.
Week 3 – 20 sets in the morning and 20 sets in the evening.
Thus, we increase the number of sets per session by 10 each week until we reach 120 sets per session.
Personal Notes:
  • Performing 30 sets at a go may be tiring and leave one feeling dizzy. It helps to take a yogic breath between sets of 30 (i.e., 30 sets – yogic breath – 30 sets – yogic breath etc).
  • One might feel slightly dizzy upon approaching set number 60. This is normal and so is sweating. The alertness that accompanies meditation, was only experienced when I doing 60-90 sets per session.
  • Evening sessions may cause one to feel alert at night. You may want to forgo the evening session to avoid disrupting your sleep cycle.
This is important. These were not listed in the book but are widely known by yogis. Those experiencing the following should avoid practicing Kapalabhati:
  • Heart diseases including high blood pressure, nasal congestion, detached retina, glaucoma, history of stroke, severe cold, severe headache, abdominal ulcers, hernia
  • Recent abdominal surgery
  • Pregnancy and during menstruation
  • Cancer
  • Psychological or psychiatric disorders
Kapalabhati is one of several exercises that can complement one’s meditation practice. The next exercise that can be incorporated into your morning routine is Nadi Shodana, the purification of Prana (energy) channels. While Kapalabhati is akin to a washing your face with ice water, Nadi Shodana feels like… swimming? That would be my next post.
May you grow in your spiritual journey ~
Bee Li 
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