The earth is bone dry. It’s rained less than a handful of times all summer. I usually can count on the rain to cool off the worst of the mid-summer heat, but this year there is no relief. The second summer in a row of severe drought. I am almost used to it. But whenever I look at a photograph of how my property used to look, I am shocked at the difference. Although the drought does make yard maintenance easier, I miss extravagant growth of the vegetation around here.
The other day I happened to be on my back porch, and caught a glimpse of my garden. The front of my garden was much taller and healthier looking than the back. This is because I always begin my watering up front and then work my way back, and sometimes I run out of time.
There is a ring of healthy green grass around the front of my garden, a by-product of the more assiduous watering there. It is a little sad to see how pathetic the rest of my lawn is, but there is this bright green semi-circle glowing like a beacon of hope.
Sometimes our lives are full of rain. Things grow in abundance without much effort on our part. Other times, we need to be disciplined about watering in order to make anything happen. Our yoga practice is the same. Some days the practice is easy and abundant. Other times it feels dry and devoid of life. Handstand comes easily one day, and is unattainable the next.
The breath is to our yoga practice as water is to a garden. It is the essential ingredient we need to practice. If we do nothing else but sit and breathe deeply for an hour, we finish feeling vital, refreshed, and energized. The poses are wonderful, I love them, but really, they are just the icing on the cake. Without the breath there can be no other practice. No meditation, no asana, no philosophy.
Any day that I get on my yoga mat and feel a yoga less than inspired, I begin with pranayama. The focus on the breath usually spills over into my asana practice too. Often, these practices wind up being the most rewarding of all.
The best kind of breath to get my juices flowing is called Ujaii. It is one of the most commonly taught breath exercises in yoga. Some yoga styles recommend breathing in this way throughout the entirety of each and every yoga practice. I personally like to switch it up a bit more than that, but I do often use it through most of my practice.
Ujaii breathing consists of a slight constriction at the back of your throat so that each breath creates a hissing sound. This constriction slows the airflow and facilitates a longer, deeper breath. Because the breath takes more time, your body is able to utilize more of the oxygen it takes in. This increases your endurance and makes you feel energized. It’s like a free oxygen hit! This makes a challenging practice feel easier, and a gentle practice feel positively nourishing. The sound of the breath is also a great tool to focus the mind, something we can use in any kind of practice, and in many situations throughout our day.
To practice ujaii breath:
Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale through your mouth make a long Haaaaah sound. Feel how the muscles in the back of the throat constrict to make this sound. Now try to make the same sound as you breathe in. Try breathing in and out several times through your mouth as you make this sound.
Close your mouth, and make the closest approximation you can to that sound while breathing through your nose. This is ujaii. Some say it sounds like Darth Vader breathing, or like the sound of the ocean. Notice how constricting the throat causes your exhalation to lengthen. Notice how the next inhalation lengthens in turn. Your breath should be smooth and even. Breathe this way for several minutes, then return to a normal, unforced breath. The normal breath will be deeper without effort.
There is never any need to force or strain the breath. Always keep it smooth and steady. You can intersperse normal breaths anytime you feel like you want or need one. Sometimes when students are first learning this breath, their throats become scratchy or slightly sore after a while. Do not be discouraged. There is no need to keep going past discomfort. Practice often and for short periods of time, and your throat will soon get used to breathing in this manner.
Once you are comfortable with the ujaii breath, you will find many situations where it comes in handy. For example, when I am excited and trying to sleep, the sound soothes me, calms my mind, and allows me to surrender enough to sleep. However, it has the opposite effect when I am tired and need to stay awake. Then the extra oxygen energizes me and keeps me alert. I also use the ujaii breath when I walk up many flights of stairs. There seems to be no limit to uses for this breath. How do you use your ujaii breath? Comment on this post and let me know.