Breathwork, also known as Pranayama in Sanskrit (prana = life force, yama = regulation) is a key practice in yoga. Breath allows us to regulate our nervous systems, create heating or cooling in the body and even access different levels of consciousness, all of which are beneficial in yoga practice.
The speed of the breath has a relationship with the state of our nervous system.
Think about it; you're in a situation where you need to be on high alert and maybe even run away to avoid danger- you're breathing quickly, right? Your body needs to get oxygen to all your muscles to make sure you react quickly and reach safety.
Fast breathing is associated with the sympathetic nervous system (aka fight-or-flight). When you're calm and relaxed, maybe sitting on the sofa watching your favourite TV series, your breathing is slow, you're in a safe environment with no external stressors.
Slow breathing is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (aka rest-and-digest).
Amazingly, the relationship between the breath and the nervous system goes both ways, which means by changing our breath we can change our internal state.
For the science bit- this happens because the vagus nerve, an important part of the autonomic nervous system (responsible for things our bodies do unconsciously), is affected the speed and shape of lung movement as we breathe, and sends signals to the brain and heart about what they should do accordingly. So we can change our whole state of being just by the way we breathe.
The breath is also incredible as it's pretty much the only thing happening in our bodies automatically over which we can also take control.
By consciously altering on the breath, we focus the mind too.
As I will often say when teaching a yoga class, the breath is always in the present moment. By focussing on the breath, we automatically focus on the present, moving away from distractions that our minds inevitably throw at us.
As we begin our yoga practice, or find our minds particularly busy, consciously altering the breath is a good way to help maintain focus. As we get more experienced, move towards the end of a session, or find our minds calmer, we may notice the breath without altering it and be able to stay focussed on the natural breath as part of our practice.
This brings us closer to the yogic concepts of Dharana (focus, concentration) and Dhyana (absorption, one-pointedness) which are necessary to align the different parts of our being (physical, energetic, mental, emotional, consciousness) and experience a state of yoga, or unity.
There are many different breathwork or Pranayama techniques in the approaches to yoga with which I work.
The main technique that I use in class is to breathe in and out through the nose, as it helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system even when we are holding challenging yoga poses, developing a habit of remaining calm in challenging situations.
We often use light, full breathing such as a three-part breath (one of my personal favourites) to energise and bring plenty of oxygen into the body at the start of a practice, or a full, releasing, sighing breath to release tension from the body before relaxation.
Having experienced the benefit during a number of years of strong Ashtanga Yoga practice, I also often indicate inhales and exhales throughout posture sequences in class, helping us to focus deeper into the practice experience.
This week however we will have the opportunity to explore another formal pranayama practice in class.
The Ujjayi or "victorious breath" (hence the name of the post- but ultimately I think all breath is victorious!) is a relatively simple but highly effective practice that almost anyone can do.
It involves breathing through the nose but with a constriction in the back of the throat on both the inhale and the exhale.
Many teachers will describe this as if you were trying to fog up a mirror or a window with your breath. I personally think of it more like "Darth Vader breath" (because it's on both the inhale and the exhale, right!) and it's also commonly called "ocean breath", as if you were making the continuous sounds of the ocean as you breathe. I think use whatever works for you.
Most people practice Ujjayi breath for the first time by joining a class and finding everyone around them using it.
For example, in an Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow class the teacher often simply says "connect to your Ujjayi breath" as the first vinyasa (or breath-linked movement) is about to begin. Some newer students are fine to just jump right in like this, but even with experience it can be a LOT to remember the Ujjayi breath all the way through a demanding sequence of postures, not to mention the fact that, well, for some it might just sound and feel weird to be breathing audibly.
Practicing Ujjayi as a technique on its own helps us to get comfortable with this pranayama and also to explore its unique benefits without the demands of the physical yoga practice.
I used to suffer from panic attacks, which are characterised by disregulation of the breath into a kind of constant gasp. At the time I re-regulated my breath and calmed the panic attacks by the only method I intuitively knew how, chain smoking (not to be recommended however!!).
Ujjayi breath is exactly this technique but without the cigarettes. When practicing it we explore the way it changes our nervous system state, the experience of the physical body, our state of mind, energy levels and perhaps emotional state too. This can be quite a delicate and useful experience in and of itself.
Yoga techniques are often referred to in regard to downregulating the sympathetic nervous system and making us more relaxed, such as when relieving panic attacks, which is incredibly useful! However it's worth noting that their purpose isn't just to make us all super chilled out absolutely all the time- heightened responses are there after all because we need them. It's more about finding a balance, finding where we need to be.
Ujjayi breath is an excellent technique for finding balance, as the audible breath makes us very aware of the length of each inhale and exhale.
When we find balance in the breath, we can be highly alert, aware and ready to respond whilst also maintaining a high level of physical, mental and emotional relaxation. This might be an optimal state for many things we need to do in life, not only a vigorous yoga posture practice.
If you'd like to practice Ujjayi breath with me this week you can learn the basics in the Beginners Class on Wednesday after work in Leeds city centre, or try the breath with a gentle vinyasa in the all-levels class at Alwoodley on Thursday evening. Head over to the booking page to book on now.