We often hear in yoga classes "Come back to your breath", "focus on the breath", "connect with your breath", but what does that really mean?
I vividly remember as a beginner yoga student feeling immensely frustrated that my long, deep breaths weren't at all long, deep, natural or comfortable, and I had to fight to make my breathing long and even, which totally defeated the point!
So what IS the point?
Long deep even breathing is so important in a rounded yoga practice but is often so elusive. It can be maddening for both the new student and the seasoned yogi when the breath refuses to be tamed and can even be the source of more anxiety when the more you try to catch and take it, the more it runs away.
I often remind my students that without focus on the breath, all we're doing is stretching. With the breath, these movements become a moving meditation, calming the mind and bringing internal stillness.
Bringing the mind to focus on your breath makes you present; it helps to ensure that what's come before during the day and what's to come later falls away, anchoring you in your practice in the here and now. When we control the breath we control the mind.
Slowing the breath calms your emotional state and activates the parasympathetic nervous system: "rest and digest" rather than "fight or flight". Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system signals to your muscles that it's safe to relax, allowing you to move more deeply and more safely into postures. The breath supports the yoga asana.
Many different types of breath are used in yoga; the Ujjayi breath is one of the most common and is a tern you'll hear regularly as a new student.
What is Ujjayi breathing?
Ujjayi breath, often referred to as the Victorious or Warrior breath, is a strong, warming breath practice that builds heat in the body. By virtue of being audible, it brings greater focus to our yoga practice by giving the mind a sound on which to focus. By focussing on this sound, we start to eliminate other sources of distraction, whether that's the person next to us, the sound of traffic outside, or thoughts of what to buy for dinner later.
To attain Ujjayi breathing, I often instruct my students to make a "ha" sound, then make the same sound again with their lips closed. Other cues I use are to make the sound the ocean makes as it meets the shore, and sometimes, "Darth Vader breath"! During Ujjayi breathing the mouth remains closed, and the aim is to make the breath smooth, long and even through the nostrils, with the inhale the same length as the exhale.
In Vinyasa Flow yoga we link breath with movement, so the focus on the internally-audible Ujjayi breath helps us retain this focus throughout our practice while the rhythmic flow of the inhale and exhale enhances the meditative quality of the yoga practice.
By letting the Ujjayi breath be your guide throughout your practice, your breath alerts you to the need to be honest with yourself when perhaps the ego is encouraging you to push a little too hard. The breath should be smooth and long throughout the practice; if it becomes short or ragged, it's a sign you may need to back off from the pose.
In time, we find that we begin to naturally carry our breath practice off the mat and into our lives, lending us a calm centre when life becomes overwhelming.
Happy breathing yogis!