The poses featured in Week 1 of #FireUpFebruary on my Instagram feed are, I think, Essentials: not so flashy or new, they may not make the most compelling inversion or arm balance yoga photos, but I’ve included them because they’re important, especially to and for those of us who are practicing yoga not just for its exercise benefits, but for its systemic benefits. Asana can be supportive for the body, and mind, and can prepare the subtle body for the seated practices of dharana and dhyana. I’ve included these because they’re standbys, shapes you can return to again and again, and count on them to meet you where you are, and also show you something new.
The same is the case with this week’s bonus content. I think it’s perhaps NOT an accident that we’ve begun this yoga challenge the same week that my sweet home Chicago has seen some of the coldest days of Winter so far. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doubling up on my practices that keep harsh winter fingers from taking hold too much inside me. Warm drinks, warm, spiced foods, and my absolute fave Ayurveda practice, abhyanga, are all keeping me going right now. I’m also doing my best to stay a bit mobile, so I don’t get frozen solid in any particular place.
The pranayama practice to share this week is also one of my favorites. Nothing too complicated: a smooth, deep, long breath that is warming, especially when doing while practicing asana. This breath gives your mind something to listen to, a place to rest, and if you pay close attention, it can tell you what you need to know about your level of intensity in practice, and whether or how it needs to change.
That’s right, I’m talking about our good friend Ujjayi breath.
In the video below I’ve broken it up into a few pieces. A couple of quick notes:
this is, generally speaking, a safe breath for most folks to practice. Pregnant folks, just be sensitive to how it feels: especially as your pregnancy advances and the baby grows, the baby can begin to make your breathing feel constricted and inhibited. Take whatever kind of breath will allow you to feel like you’re getting enough.
If this practice is new to you, please read the instructions first. Then try watching the video, and then watch it again, this time following along. This breath should not feel like a gasp. Imagine your throat like a large pipe that your breath is flowing through. Your goal is to narrow that pipe by gently engaging the muscles around it, not to close it off completely. Think, the soft hiss of a Chicago radiator, not a pearl-clutching gasp of shock and horror.
I often hear folks struggle with this breath on the inhale: the exhale sounds clear and soft and smooth, and the inhale sounds short and stuffy. Students familiar with this breath, and in particular “advanced” students, should work to make the inhale sound the same and last the same amount of time as the exhale.
As is always the case with pranayama, if this practice makes you dizzy, nauseous, or anxious, STOP. Release the practice and breathe normally.
DISCLAIMER: the sound quality in this video isn’t fantastic, because, surprise! you can hear my heater (and maybe my refrigerator) on in the background. Hopefully I’m close enough to the mike that you can hear my breath too.
Begin this practice in a comfortable seat. Allow your breath to move normally, watching it come and go.
Take a normal breath in through both nostrils, and exhale with a “HAAAAAAA” sound. Imagine you were trying to fog up a mirror or window an inch in front of your face. Try that breath three times. It should sound like a whisper.
Then, try to produce that same “HAAAAAAAA” sound as you breathe in; on exhale, close the mouth, and allow the breath to come through the nostrils. Try that breath three times. Make sure to close the breath with each exhale, to ensure that your mouth and throat don’t dry out too much. Feel free to have a sip of water if the throat is feeling dry.
Now, put the two together: take an inhale through the mouth “HAAAAAAA” and an exhale the same way. Take another breath in, and as you exhale through the mouth, close the lips and see if you can produce that same whispering sound in the throat, even though the lips are closed and you’re breathing through the nose. Now, try to produce that sound on the inhale as well. Imagine you were still whispering in the throat, but the air is moving in and out through the nostrils. The sound will get softer, but you should still be able to hear it.
Continue to practice this breath as long as you are comfortable. When you’re ready to end, release the breath, notice the effect of the breath on the body and mind, and then gently blink the eyes open.
This breath is so soothing to the nervous system. It lengthens and deepens the inhale and exhale, sloooowing thiiiiinngs dooooown. It also warms the body gently. You can practice this technique sitting up or lying down, and it’s particularly helpful in asana practice. A slow, deep ujjayi breath in can help build and stoke your prana, and a long, smooth ujjayi breath out can help release tension, anxiety, and a sensation of stuckness. It’s a great breath to use when practicing with menstrual cramps or PMS symptoms, because it has not just a physical but also a mental effect on the body/mind. Remember, your breath is the quickest way to assess and change the quality of your thought. Ujjayi breath is a technique that will leave you feeling calm, quieted, and can also help stoke and cultivate a quality of strength and capacity.