“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” ~~ Sanskrit Proverb
Many people, when first beginning a yoga practice, want to know about the breathing. Their yoga teachers are constantly reminding them to breathe throughout class…breathe in the positive, breathe out the stress…breathe in and out through the nose…inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we usually don’t give breathing much thought in our normal lives. It’s something we just DO. So it’s no wonder that, when forced to start putting so much attention on the breath all of a sudden, people want to know more about it. Breathing is probably the thing I get asked about the most by my students, and in my opinion, it’s the most important thing we do in our yoga practice. After all, it’s the first thing we do when we come into the world as babies, and it’s the last thing we do before we leave the world when we die.
The kind of breathing generally practiced in most hatha yoga classes is called Ujjayi breathing (pronounced oo-jai), which loosely translates as “victorious” breathing. It has a steadiness, resonance, and depth to it. I’ve heard many teachers refer to as “Whisper breath” and “Ocean breath”, because of how it sounds. I jokingly refer to it as the “Darth Vader breath”, because it always reminds me of what Darth Vader sounds like when he has his mask on in the Star Wars movies.
Whatever you decide to refer to it as, practicing Ujjayi breathing is beneficial for a variety of reasons. This breath helps us with focus, which helps harness the mind when it wants to wander off in a million directions. Maintaining a steady and even Ujjayi breath during a vigorous physical yoga session is not easy; therefore, being able to do so will improve the strength and capacity of our lungs and heart. This breath also regulates heating of the body, heating up the core from the inside, which makes stretching safer and more effectively detoxes.
Before practicing Ujjayi breathing, first figure out what your breath is like in its natural state. Take some time to lie down or sit comfortably somewhere, and notice the rhythm, pace and sound of your breath. Notice the length of your inhales as compared to your exhales. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with your normal breathing pattern, start to make the subtle adjustments that are needed for the Ujjayi breath.
Start by breathing through the nose and making sure the length of your inhales matches the length of your exhales. Once you have that evenness, start to deepen the breath just a little, but not to the point where you feel strained or forced…you don’t want to come away from your practice more stressed than when you began. Continuing to breathe through the nose, start to focus your attending to the space at the base of your throat, right where the soft spot is between the collarbones, and start to breathe there as well…this will change the quality of the breath by making it throatier and more audible.
That last piece seems to be the hardest part of the breath for most people to master. It’s hard to imagine what that feels like or what it should sound like. When I teach this part of the breath in class, I usually compare it to what you do when you try to fog up a window or mirror with your breath…only this time, try to mimic that action with the mouth closed. And in terms of it being audible, it should be audible to you, but not to anyone who is more than a few feet away from you.
It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? So don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right on your first try. We’ll be working on fine-tuning this breath in class this week. If you’re not able to make it to one of my classes, try practicing on your own by following the instructions above. There are also a variety of free videos available on the Internet. I really like this one, which I came across on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8O2zheeES0