Kapala is a Sanskrit word for a cup traditionally made from the top of a human skull that is used as a ritual bowl in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. Although kapalas made from donated human skulls are still available today, kapalas tend to be artistic ritual objects often made of brass, crystal, copper or silver.
Kapalas are used for higher Tantric meditation and as an offering bowl on the altar. Especially in Tibet, kapalas are often adorned with jewels and elaborately carved. Among the Hindu deities depicted with the kapala are Durga, Kali and Shiva.
In Tibet, kapalas are used to hold dough cakes and wine, symbolizing flesh and blood as offerings to the more wrathful gods and goddesses. Such dough cakes are usually shaped like human eyes, ears or tongues. The yogi may consume the offerings, or they may be shared as part of a Vajrayana empowerment ceremony. Kapalas are also used during higher Tantric meditation to help facilitate a transcendental state. Traditionally, it was thought that whoever drank from the kapala would obtain both the knowledge and personality of the person to whom it belonged.
Kapala is also the name of a yoga pose and a yoga breathing exercise. Kapalasana is a pose that improves concentration and memory and balances the three upper chakras. It is a modified headstand with the palms on the ground in front of the face and the elbows bent 90 degrees. The knees rest on upper arms and elbows. Kapalbhati pranayama is a yoga breathing exercise that honors this tradition, symbolizing the cleansing of the body. It begins with alternating short, explosive exhales followed by longer, passive inhales.