It doesn’t take many yoga classes to realise that there’s a lot of talk about the breath. How to breathe, when to breathe and tips for coordinating your movements with your inhalations and exhalations. As a new student, this might seem overwhelming as you attempt to follow along to a sequence and keep your left and rights in check but there are plenty of great reasons yoga is a breath-based practice. This article will cover the basics of Ujayi breath (how we breathe in a flow class) and explain why it is so important for your practice.
Ujayi breath is a form of pranayama or breath control. Pranayama sounds fancy but at its most basic level it suggests that the way we breathe has a huge impact on how we feel. Becoming conscious of our breathing in a yoga class can help us set a steady pace, improves self-awareness and manages our energy levels. Ujayi breath also has a powerful balancing effect on our entire cardio-respiratory system.
First things first, here’s a how to guide for getting the hang of Ujayi. Try is out a few times sitting still so you can get the hang of it before trying it in class and remember, there’s absolutely no expectation of keeping your Ujayi breath up the whole class. As you focus on other things you’ll naturally forget, then remember and forget again. Like anything, it gets easier with practice.
How to practice Ujayi
- Seal your lips and start to breath in and out of the nose.
- Take an inhalation that is slightly longer than normal and fills the belly.
- Take a gentle pause at the top of your inhale.
- Exhale slowly through your nose while gently constricting the back of your throat.
- Again, go for a gentle pause at the bottom of your exhale.
- If you’re unsure how to constrict the back of your throat, try it first with the mouth open. On your exhale pretend you are fogging up a window. Try to keep that sensation as your breath in and out of the nose with the mouth closed.
- There’s no need to be super noisy, just go for a gentle raspy quality in your breath.
So, why is the way we breathe so fundamental to our yoga practice?
Ujayi holds our attention:
Ujayi breath is a great way to build focus and presence in your class. One of the primary goals of yoga is to calm the mind while energizing the body and the breath becomes a very handy anchor. Our mind loves a distraction so choosing to bring your awareness back to the sound and sensation of the breath is a great way to flex your concentration muscle. The pace of life is fast and furious and we spend a huge amount of time lost in thought so think of your yoga practice as a window of time to get out of your head and into your body. Think of your class as a moving meditation. When you inevitably get distracted (over and over again!) you can count on your breath to be there waiting for you.
Ujayi increases our self-awareness:
If we are paying attention to our breath, we are paying attention to our body. Staying in tune with our body and listening to how it feels which makes us more self-aware and less prone to over-exertion or injury. Next time you settle into a pose, notice if you can gather and focus your energy with your inhalations. As you exhale, begin to pay attention to where you are spending your energy. You may notice a tightness in your jaw or shoulders you could let go of. Learning to shift your attention inside yourself is one of the greatest lessons you can take away from a yoga practice. This ability to increase your sensitivity becomes a skill you can transfer across to daily life to manage tension and stress in your body.
The breath sets the pace:
It’s easy to fall into a tendency to rush if you are new to the flow style of yoga. Each class might present a new sequence and for a while it might feel like you’re struggling to keep up. Maintaining a steady, even breath is like a metronome reminds us to slow down and set a tempo that suits us. Next time you’re practicing try to let the breath be the boss; allow your breath to set the timing of your movement rather than the other way around. It can help to slowly count to four for each inhale and exhale. Each one of us has a slightly unique tempo so it doesn’t matter if you are not perfectly in time with those around you. Maintaining this steady pace will ensure the class feels more like a slow dance than a wrestling match and you’ll feel energised rather than depleted come savasana (the awesome bit where you get to lay down at the end).
Your breath dials into the nervous system:
Usually when we exercise we stimulate our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is the active, adrenalin fuelled response that fires us up into ‘go mode.’ In contrast, when we practice yoga with Ujayi breath we dial into our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS conserves energy, lowers stress and lifts our mood. While a dynamic flow class can strengthen the body, and provide physical challenge, keeping a connection to our breath will prevent us from over-exertion and nourish our nervous system. Next time you feel challenged in a pose, dial into your Ujayi breath and see if you can remain calm and focused. If you can’t get control of the breath, it’s your body’s way of telling you to pull back.
Your breath is important but don’t overthink it – Ujayi breath is designed to calm the body and mind and it’s a skill that will develop over time. Yoga should be fun so don’t take it too seriously. My flow yoga program features three classes where you can practice your Ujayi breath – let me know how you go!