Breathing is both the first and last action we take in our lives here on earth. The breath is our constant companion. Although each breath is critical for sustaining life, many breaths we take are ineffective for living optimally.
Most people do not breathe properly. Watch a baby, kitten, or puppy breathe and notice the rise and fall of the belly. Somewhere in the course of childhood, most humans stop breathing down into their belly and breath only into the lungs or chest region.
Breathing informs us about and helps us regulate our automatic nervous system. Our nervous system has two basic components: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for enabling our body to cope with stress. It increases our heart rate, blood pressure, and prepares the body to fight or flee from danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system basically does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. It decreases our heart rate, blood pressure, and allows the body to relax. The parasympathetic nervous system allows the body to rest and digest. We can consciously induce these internal states by manipulating our breath.
Pranayama: extending the life-force.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of the Eight-Limbed Yoga Path as outlined by the sage Patanjali. Breathing techniques are so closely associated with Pranayama that sometimes people think the breath itself is Prana. The word Prana basically means “life-force” and ayama means extension or expansion. Therefore, Pranayama actually translates as “life-force extension.”
We receive Prana in a variety of ways. Certainly, the breath is one vehicle for Prana. Others include our environment, the food we eat, and other people. Like so many things in our yoga practice, there is no good or bad when it comes to Prana. Prana is energy itself. Whether the Prana we receive is helpful or not is up to us.
Ujjayi breathing is one Pranayama practice. The word ujjayi means “victorious”. Ujjayi breathing is sometimes called “ocean breath” because of the sound it creates. Ujjayi breathing is used in many hatha yoga practices. It is a key component to vinyasa-style yoga practices. A vinyasa is simply a linking mechanism. In a vinyasa-style yoga practice, Ujjayi breath links each movement to an inhalation or exhalation.
Practicing Ujjayi breath has several benefits. It is practiced in hatha and vinyasa yoga classes because it helps with mental focus, warms and retains heat in the body, and gives practitioners a deeper experience in yoga poses. Ujjayi breath also has the added benefit of providing a sense of calm and balance by soothing the nervous system.
How to practice Ujjayi breath:
Ujjayi breath is not difficult, but it does take some practice to create the sound in a way that feels natural. Here are the steps to practicing Ujjayi breath:
- Sit or stand so the spine is as upright as possible.
- Begin with smooth, even diaphragmatic breathing.
- Breathe in and out the nose.
- Gradually deepen the breath.
- Let the inhalations and exhalations be about the same length. At first, it may even be helpful to inhale and exhale to the count of four or five.
- Slightly tighten the back of the throat (the glottis).
- On an exhale, try saying “haaaaaaaa”.
- Close the lips and exhale through the nose while creating that same sensation at the back of the throat.
- Try creating the same sensation while inhaling.
- Practice Ujjayi breathing for several minutes before returning to normal breathing.