Each class Brian, Kelly, Craig or I teach, we begin with the breath. This may seem mundane to those of you who have been through this series of standing chi gung movements over and over again. This practice at the beginning of class helps establish a rhythm of the breath that will continue throughout class, however, there is a greater purpose behind it all.
Pranayama is one part of yoga that includes systems of breathing. Prana is what flows inside us and keeps us alive. According to Desikachar (a highly revered teacher in India), when someone is troubled, restless or ill, there is more prana outside the body… too little prana can make people feel sick or depressed. The practice of Pranayama can lead to transformation and change, harnessing Prana and bringing it into the body.
The breath we practice during yoga class is called Ujjayi Pranayama. This breath creates a sound like the waves of the ocean as you inhale and exhale. This is done by letting the air flow over the tongue creating a sound like you are fogging up a mirror. Beginning breathers will constrict the throat and create tension there. This makes the same sound and is a great place to begin a breathing practice. As practioners begin to refine the breath, there is less struggle and more ease. The sound comes from the breath flowing over the tongue. The tension in the throat softens. As you breathe, you draw the breath into the lungs and help them expand like bellows. On the inhale the lungs and ribs spread wide apart, on the exhale the lungs and rib cage contract.
Why is this important? This is important for so many reasons. First, let’s look at the physical impact. The practice of Ujjayi breathing calms the nervous system by slowing down the body’s natural rhythms, increases lung capacity, relieves asthma, stimulates the immune system, and brings oxygen rich blood throughout the body. On a physiological level, Ujjayi breathing heats the body from the inside out, opens the body, increases attention span and focus, and it can help detoxify the body. On a spiritual level, Ujjayi breathing brings prana (or life force) into the body to heal the body from the inside out. It opens the heart, increases awareness and brings us to a state of balance. On an emotional level, the lungs store grief and inspiration and practicing Ujjayi can help you release old grief, as well as cultivate inspiration.
Here is what makes the breath important to me as a yoga practitioner. Breathing Ujjayi gives me a chance to focus on one thing– my breath. This one-pointed focus allows me to go deeper into myself and notice when I begin to react in the poses. When my breath becomes shallow or too rigid, I know I have gone too far. Breathing also helps me feel complete and at ease within. After a rough day, the first thing I will do as I get in my car is spend a few minutes breathing Ujjayi. Somehow it softens everything.
If you practice yoga and do not practice Ujjayi in your asana classes, why not? Have you been to a class where a teacher tells you to breathe, yet never tells you how? What does the breath do for you as a student of hatha yoga? What was your first experience like in a class where people were Ujjayi breathing?
According to the Sufis, there is one virtue and one sin. The virtue- taking a breath in awareness. The sin- taking a breath in negligence. And so we end with a quote from Hazrat Inayat Khan, “May we be a breath of life to the body of human kindness.”