Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Pranayama: Ujjayi Breathing June 6, 2011

Filed under: breath,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 9:02 pm
Tags: ,

If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you’ve probably heard of ujjayi breathing. If you haven’t heard the term, you might recognize it as that sort of loud, raspy, almost a little embarrassing breathing noise that your yoga teacher makes. Why, you may ask, do yoga teachers breathe funny like that? I’ll tell you how to try a few breaths at home, and then once you’ve got the noise down, I’ll tell you more about it and why it can be beneficial.

To begin ujjayi breathing, take a deep breath in through your nose. Now open your mouth and exhale while whispering the word “Ha”. Make the “Ha” last the length of your exhale; don’t vocalize the “Ha” or say it out loud, just whisper it. Do this a few times and notice how your throat constricts when you do it. Then shut your mouth. Keep thinking “Ha” and see if you can still make the same noise, with the same throat constriction, while exhaling only through your nose. Engage your abdominal muscles to help press all the air out. Got it? Now try to make the noise as you inhale through the nose too. If it helps, think “Sa” on your inhale. See if you can feel the cool air on the roof of your mouth as you inhale and exhale.

Ujjayi breathing sounds funny when you do it, but once you get past feeling self-conscious about the sound, you can use this technique as a tool to improve your yoga practice. Ujjayi means “victory”. It’s a warming breath that creates heat in the body. I feel like the throat constriction helps me to get a deeper, fuller breath. When you combine ujjayi with diaphragmatic breathing, you can powerfully cleanse stale air from the bottom of your lungs and get fresh oxygen moving through your system.

Use ujjayi breath during yoga class to help build up heat as you practice. We already know that focusing on the breath can help us to stay strong and hold poses longer; the ujjayi breath helps with that by being a nice deep breath, and having a nice deep breath makes it easier to keep the breathing slow and steady. Believe it or not, the sound helps too. Hearing yourself breathe a slow, deep, steady breath can be soothing to the mind and can help you focus.

This is why your yoga teacher breathes so loudly: she’s using the sound to calm the students and remind them to breathe. Imagine it: there you are, trying to hold your plank or high lunge or whatever pose it is that challenges you most, and you’re wobbling away, your arms or legs are shaking and you want to be done with it already. Your teacher comes over to you and makes some minor adjustment to your posture (or maybe she just adjusts the guy next to you), and of course she’s breathing loudly, slowly and evenly. Without noticing that it’s happening, you try to deepen your breath to match hers; maybe you were even holding your breath, but now you’re breathing deeply, and maybe you wobble a little less, or feel a little burst of strength to carry you through the pose.

Ujjayi breath is a breath of heat and energy and victory. Engaging ujjayi breath always make me feel determined to keep holding the pose. It’s good for tapas! Practice it whenever you can, even off your mat (if there’s no one around to look at you like you’re a crazy person), and you may find it helps with whatever you’re dealing with.


Pranayama: Alternate Nostril Breathing June 3, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 6:35 pm
Tags: ,

Have you ever noticed how one nostril sometimes seems more open than the other as you breathe through your nose? This truly happens to everyone. Take a few breaths through your nose and notice which nostril seems more open right now and which seems more clogged. The difference may be very slight, but it should be present (if your nose is healthy and not affected by allergies or a cold). The ancient yogis believed that whichever nostril was active could affect your mood and your energy level, and they developed a technique to affect the flow of breath in the nostrils, thus influencing mood and energy. This may sound like New Agey hokum, and I don’t blame you if you think that. But this technique, alternate nostril breathing, can be done easily at home with nothing but your nose and one hand, only takes a few minutes, can’t hurt anything and could maybe do some good. I figure, why not, so if you’d like to learn more, read on!

According to yogic theory, prana, or life energy, travels through the body via channels called nadis. There are thousands of nadis carrying prana to all parts of the body, but the three most important nadis are called pingala, ida, and sushumna. These three energy channels all travel up the back to the head. Pingala nadi starts at the base of the spine, cross-crosses up the back, and emerges at the right nostril; ida nadi does the same and emerges at the left nostril. Sushumna nadi travels directly up the length of the spine and is engaged when both nostrils are equally open.

The ancient yogis observed that when the right nostril is active, the body feels more energetic, and when the left nostril is active, the body feels more lethargic. This is because either the pingala or ida nadi is more open, channeling prana in different ways. The goal is to balance the flow of breath in the nostrils and activate the sushumna nadi, which brings pure energy to the body, perfect for meditation. Alternate nostril breathing (also called nadi shodhanam) works to bring about this balance.

Sit up straight in a comfortable position. You’ll use your right hand to alternately open and close each nostril: thumb against the right nostril, third finger against the left nostril. (You can either curl up the first and second fingers or rest them on your forehead if that’s comfortable.)

Being by inhaling deeply through both nostrils. Close your right nostril with your thumb and slowly exhale through your left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, then hold the breath a moment while you switch fingers, opening the right side and pressing the left nostril closed with the ring finger. Exhale slowly on the right side, then inhale on the right side. You’ve now completed one round of alternate nostril breathing: one exhale and one inhale on each side. Do at least six rounds total, preferably nine rounds.

As you do the exercise, pay attention to keeping the breath long and smooth, and try to keep thoughts focused on the breath. If one nostril feels a little clogged, don’t panic; just take a slow deep breath. You have plenty of air, and you can always stop if you need to.

After practicing alternate nostril breathing, don’t expect to feel anything special. Nothing’s going to happen right now. Any results will be too subtle to see right away. That’s why my assignment for this month is to practice this exercise every day, all month long: because this will give me an opportunity to see the breath at work for a longer period of time. I’ll keep you posted on what I experience as the month goes on!


Pranayama: Three-Part Breathing May 31, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 9:49 pm
Tags: ,

A few days ago I posted about diaphragmatic breathing. The next breathing technique I have to practice this month is called three-part breathing. Three-part breathing works to completely fill and then completely empty the lungs, which is beneficial for removing toxins from the body. Because the three-part breath is so slow and deep, it’s also a helpful technique to learn for combating anxiety, anger, or stress.

Three-part breathing uses a long, deep inhale to fill the lungs to capacity. First, you activate the diaphragm to fill the bottom of the lungs (i.e., a diaphragmatic breath), then you continue to inhale, using the chest muscles to fill the ribcage, and finally the top of the chest rises as the lungs are completely filled with air. So the three-part breath consists, in order, of the diaphragmatic breath, the chest or thoracic breath, and the shallow or clavicular breath. Externally, the three-part breath can be observed as each section of the lungs fills up: first the belly puffs out, then the sides of the ribcage expand, and finally the top of the chest and even the shoulders rise as the lungs fill to the top.

On the inhale, we fill the lungs from bottom to top; exhaling, we empty the lungs in reverse order, from top to bottom: first the chest and shoulders drop, then the ribs contract, and finally the belly sucks in as the last bit of air is released from the lungs. (Note that all inhalation and exhalation should be through the nose, not the mouth.)

To try practicing three-part breathing at home, first work on isolating the three distinct movements and get familiar with what each movement feels like. Place your hand on your belly, then ribs, then chest, to feel how they rise and fall. Then try putting all three movements together in order. It will feel unnatural and strange at first, but with a little practice, breathing this way will feel more and more natural. I’ve only been practicing this technique for a little over a week and already I find myself breathing this way unconsciously. It’s a good calming breath for when I feel stressed or upset, and it’s also good to use when oxygen seems scarce (like on a crowded train car!).


Pranayama: Diaphragmatic Breathing May 26, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 2:32 pm
Tags: ,

This will be the first in a series of posts describing the different pranayama breathing exercises I’ll be doing all month. First up is diaphragmatic breathing. This technique is just what it sounds like: breathing with your diaphragm.

Take in a deep breath, and let it out. Notice how your body had to work to breathe in, and how you relax as you exhale. This is natural: your lungs’ natural position is to be empty, so it doesn’t take any work to breathe out, but breathing in requires muscular work. If you aren’t paying attention to your breath, your body will do this automatically, but we want to bring some attention to how we breathe, notice any patterns or habits, and cultivate an awareness of how this system works. (After all, it’s what keeps you alive!) There are three main types of breathing: diaphragmatic breathing (which makes your belly pooge out), thoracic or chest breathing (which makes your ribcage expand), and clavicular or upper chest breathing (shallow breaths that make your upper chest and even shoulders move up and down).

The diaphragm is the muscle right under your lungs that helps you to breathe. When your lungs are empty, the diaphragm curves up into the natural space made by your ribcage; when you breathe in, the diaphragm flattens out as the lungs fill with air. By flattening the diaphragm, you draw air all the way down into the bottom of the lungs. This is a good thing! The lungs’ job is to oxygenate the blood, so that oxygen can be carried throughout the body. When we are sitting up or standing, gravity causes the blood to gather at the bottom of the lungs, so by using the diaphragm to pull air to the bottom of the lungs, the air can get the blood more easily and your lungs can do their job more efficiently.

Sit up straight and place one hand on your belly. Breathe in through your nose, concentrating on making your belly puff out. (No one’s watching, and you’re not wearing a bikini, so go ahead.) Don’t expand the ribcage, and don’t let your shoulders lift – just feel the belly puff out. Then breathe out, also through your nose, and feel the belly contract. If you exhale long enough, your belly might even go concave. Then breathe in and puff the belly out again. Do this a few more times until you get the feel of it. Then put your hand on your chest and do some shallow chest breathing: like a dog panting, or like you’re on the treadmill at the gym. Feel your chest go up and down; if you’re near a mirror, you can see this too. Do you feel the difference? You need a lot more of the shallow breaths to equal one long, slow diaphragmatic breath.

Next time, we’ll combine diaphragmatic breath with thoracic and clavicular/shallow breath to form (like Voltron) a three-part breath!