A weekly series to guide you through new yoga poses, and teach you something about ones you might already know.
Yoga begins with breath. The breath becomes your focus, your guide, and your dance partner throughout practice. Traditionally, yogis practice pranayama (breath work) with asana (postures) to prepare the mind for deep meditation, chanting and devotion. As your yoga practice evolves beyond a physical expression to reach the mind and spirit, it becomes a life tool for transformation. Ultimately, an intentional yoga practice that can support you in becoming the best version of yourself–physically, mentally and spiritually.
To begin, we must start with the breath. In traditional Hatha yoga it is common to practice Ujjayi breath–often translated as “victorious breath” or “ocean breath”– It is a steady, full, rhythmic breath that softens the nervous system, quiets the chatter of the mind, and cultivates awareness. This intentional, focused breath will be your guide through your asana practice.
To begin, find a comfortable seated position. If the hips are open you might find cross-legged, full lotus or half lotus. And if the hips are tighter, try drawing the knees together and sitting upright on the heels.
*Tip: I like to use the support of a block beneath my sit bones to elevate my hips.
Begin to notice the natural state of your breath. Draw your awareness to the qualities of your breath–the depth, the length and the strength of your breath. As you bring ease into your breath, start to separate your practice from the rest of your day–so that you are present, on your mat, in your body. As you release everything around you, close your eyes, draw inward and start to give more attention to steadying your breath.
To find Ujjayi technique, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale fully through your nose. The muscles in your face should be soft and your mouth can close comfortably. Continue to inhale and exhale through your nose starting to notice an even rhythm–so that you are taking in a full breath and using the entire value of the breath. Ujjayi breath should be audible, but delicate–not loud, as if you are creating an ocean of waves with the richness of your breath. To create this sound, bring a slight constriction, a small hug, to the base of your throat. The breath should not feel forced or dramatic, but instead subtle and soft. Find an even inhale and exhale and let your Ujjayi breath settle you into your practice.
As your asana practice moves you into strong, challenging shapes it is important to keep the fullness of your breath moving freely through your body. It is common for the breath to become short and sharp when it should remain deep and full throughout practice. My favorite technique for connecting breath to the movement in your body and in your mind is the three part breath. It is a wonderful way to feel your breath, build awareness and tune inward.
To practice this technique, find a comfortable reclined position, typically on your back with shoulders relaxed, knees bent and eyes closed.
Bring your right hand to rest on your low belly and your left hand to rest gently on your heart. Start to initiate your breath from the low belly and allow it to rise up through your heart. With each inhale, feel your low belly rise into your right hand, then let your ribs expand and finally feel the heart lift at the top of your inhale. As you exhale feel everything soften into the earth. Continue with slow and even breaths–first filling the belly, then the ribs and third expanding through the heart center. Take several moments to feel the breath move through your body in three parts. Try to give your full attention to the breath and its movement as it prepares your mind and body for practice. Commit to keeping this breath with you throughout your practice and your entire day.
I hope these breathing techniques bring you more ease and more awareness for the rest of your week. Next week we’ll begin to integrate this breath with movement so be sure to check back!
Emily Buchholtz is a yoga instructor in Portland, OR. She believes everyone can benefit from a little more yoga.