My classmates and I begin on our backs, and I’m trying to bring my consciousness to my mat and letting the day slink away. My teacher guides us to constrict the back of our throat and initiate our Ujjayi breath. I start breathing deeply, listening to the sound it generates and be calmed by it. Once we get moving though, I slip back into a slower, more normal breath without the constriction.
It’s not every class that we practice Ujjayi breathing, but it does happen at the start of many of the classes I’ve taken. And it’s usually at the start of class, to help us get warmed up. That is at least until a class this last month, when one of my teachers told us that some yogis will work to maintain Ujjayi breathing for the entire flow. She said that by focusing on maintaining that breath, we may be able to focus further on the practice. That made me think of my Ujjayi breath as a sort of mental drishti.
So what is Ujjayi pranayama? Pranayama is breath work, and there are many different types of breath work. Ujjayi pranayama is the victorious breath or ocean breathing. If you’ve ever practiced it in class, it really does kind of sound like the ocean. It sounds like the reverberating whisper you hear when holding a conch shell to your ear.
But regardless of the description, it brings focus.
I’ve come across the benefits of breathing and using the breath to calm down from periods of high stress. It’s relaxing, it carries more oxygen through the body, and more. It’s why a common piece of advice when you’re angry is to take a deep breath. Consciously breathing works. When I’m stressed, I don’t recognize my pulse picking up or my breath shortening as it happens, but I notice all of that in reverse when I take a few moments to just breathe. I’ll step away and take one long, slow inhale and release one long, slow exhale. It’s then that I start feel my heartbeat slowing, releasing tension.
Ujjayi breathing does that as well. It strengthens the connection between the mind and the body.
So when I’m in class and lying there on my mat, I’m thinking both of the practice ahead but also still what I’m trying to let go from the day. Did I answer that email? Did I explain an issue resolution clearly enough? Oh, I need to remember to check on this other thing tomorrow. When my teacher cues Ujjayi breathing, these things start to slowly fall away. By focusing on the throat constriction, and a nice long inhale with exhale, I stop thinking about what tugs at my mind from earlier in the day.
I haven’t held my Ujjayi breath for a full class, but I have found myself using it to come back to my breath. In a recent class, I was in a challenging pose and remembered what my teacher said about Ujjayi focusing us through an entire flow practice. It was when I thought of this that I realized I had dropped all breath work. I was taking very short, shallow breaths with a few held breaths in between.
So I took the moment to consciously extend my breath. It took a couple of rounds of breathing, but I started to find a little more comfort in the pose. I find it can sometimes be tricky to try to check back in with Ujjayi pranayama when folded over upside down, but it’s becoming a reminder to me to breath deep and slow it down, and that may have been just what I needed.