Ujjayi Breath | Second Pillar of Power Yoga
The first pillar of Baptiste power vinyasa yoga is Drishti which we explored in a recent article and the second pillar is ujjayi breath. It is the focus on breathing that changes the practice of yoga from a form of exercise to something life changing! Breath is, after all, what decides if we are alive!
Your breath is your greatest teacher when you practice yoga. Right now, observe how you are breathing. What are the qualities of your breath? Is it smooth or resisted? Deep or shallow? Calm or agitated? The state of our breath reflects the state of our mind and body. If you are upset or angry, your breath may reflect these emotions and appear short, rigid, and shallow. Similarly if you are at ease and experiencing joy, you will likely experience ease in your breath. Many of our physiological systems are affected by our state of emotion. When we are excited or nervous, our heart rates increase. When we are anxious or upset, it is common for our digestion to be off. The amazing thing about our breath is that we have the ability to actively intervene. That is, we can consciously take a slow deep breath to help get calm when we are agitated or stressed. This is what we do in our asana practice. We deliberately bring ourselves into challenging postures and focus on breathing with ease and bringing peace into a difficult situation.
Ujjayi breath is the breath used in power vinyasa yoga. In sanskrit it translates to victorious breath. To create ujjayi breath, slightly constrict your throat (specifically the glottis) as if you are fogging a mirror. Maintain the constriction and breathe deeply in and out of your nose slowly. The constriction causes an audible sound similar to the sounds of the ocean waves or Darth Vader.
Attention to your breath will change your yoga practice significantly. When we focus on our breath, several things happen. First, we awaken to the present moment. It is the natural result. Take a slow deep inhale and exhale and pay attention to the sensations you create. This immediately taps you into what is here and now - you breathing and you alive! Breath is the key component to being alive and when we focus our attention on our breath, we get more present to being alive. In my experience, the audible sound of ujjayi breath gives me more awareness of my breath and gets me more present to being alive!
The constriction of your throat also helps to creates heat (the fourth pillar of Baptiste yoga). In short, the heat helps to dissolve the things that you desire to get rid of. It helps to burn away grudges, fears, extra weight, doubt, resistance, and whatever else stands in your way of being who you want to be. We will explore heat as the fourth pillar in a future article -- stay tuned!
Ujjayi breath also helps us to get into the flow (the fifth pillar of Baptiste yoga) of our practice and our life. When I move with ease on my mat, my breath is synchronized with my movements. When I am in the flow of life (living as I want to and without resistance and struggle), it turns out that my breath comes with ease both on and off the mat. When I begin my yoga practice and begin ujjayi breathing, I observe the qualities of my breath and I know if my body is in a state of calm or if there is stress. If my breath is short and shallow, I make a choice to breath with more depth and ease. If I stay committed to this throughout my practice, my state of being transforms. I begin to breath and move with more ease. At the end of my practice, I am left with a feeling of rejuvenation. And this is why I get back on the mat over and over again and bring my attention to my breath over and over again.
My teacher Baron Baptiste says "Your breath is the key to unlocking your body’s potential. Maintaining steady, rhythmic breathing is the single most important element of yoga practice." While teaching a class yesterday I saw students wobbling in balancing poses. I considered some of the effective cues that I often share such as "ground the four corners of your foot down into the mat" or "focus your eyes on one point to help you balance" and then I decided to stay focused on their breath. I saw the impact breath has on transforming from unsteadiness and struggle to balance and ease. When I observed one student who seemed unsteady in Warrior III pose, I simply said "ujjayi breath". With awareness, she took a deeper breath and suddenly her whole body became more steady and yet also more relaxed. If one focused breath can so strongly impact one yoga pose, what can a regular practice of getting present to your breath do for your life?
I often hear yoga teachers say "let it go". With my thoughts, doubts, and fears, I find it challenging to do this. After all, what action do I take to let go of things that exist only in my mind? With a focus on my breath, it all seems accessible. With each inhale, I expand my body. The expansion brings awareness to areas of my body that carry more tension. With awareness, I have access to changing the tension. With each exhale, I let go of old air that is rich in carbon dioxide which I no longer need. I can also let go of the physical tension in my hips or shoulders with each exhale. With ujjayi breath, I get present to where my muscles are gripping and creating stress in my physical body, and I get access to responding by relaxing my muscles. When I focus on breathing and letting go of the physical stress in my body, the stress in my mind begins to fade. It is as if my body hears my breathing and my mind realizes that my breath and body are real, and the stressful thoughts are not.
I do the work on my yoga mat to make a difference in the rest of my life and I encourage my students to always do the same. Our breath is one of the simplest tools of the practice to take anywhere. No need for your yoga pants or a mat. You do not even need space to lie down. Your breath is available wherever you are. When you find yourself in any challenging situation (i.e. a yoga pose, a life transition, difficult relationship, tempered children, loss of something important, etc), pause and take a deep ujjayi breath to bring awareness, peace, and ease to the situation. Our breath does not change the external situation. It does, however, gives us an opportunity to relax with what is presently happening; to see possibilities for positive change; and to respond with clarity and purpose.
I also encourage you to pause in the middle of any joyous occasions and breath deeply. I see students get into new poses such as crow pose for the first time and forget to breath. I remind them to take a deep breath so they can savour the joy and experience. When you get the opportunity to celebrate with friends, travel to a dream spot, meet someone new, or get the promotion or job you desire, pause and breathe deeply. Use your breath to get present to the joy and beauty in your life! Celebrate with a victorious breath - an ujjayi breath.
Trish Corley is a Baptiste certified yoga teacher and a licensed doctor of physical therapy.
Trish leads several Baptiste inspired and anatomy related workshops and yoga teacher trainings. Check our Teacher Trainings and Programs.