In January, we began a discussion of pranayama, or breath work, and outlined some simple breath awareness and breath-altering exercises. In this edition, we move on to ujjayi breath, the simplest form of actual pranayama. Please review Part I before continuing to the exercises below.
Pranayama is simply defined as lengthened inhalations followed by lengthened exhalations. In his book “Light on Pranayama”, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “”¦pranayama is a divine fire which cleanses the organs, senses, mind, intellect and ego.” While this sounds like a tremendously vigorous practice, in reality pranayama requires just awareness of your breath, relaxation of the body, and a few minutes in which to practice.
Begin with the Part I breath exercises, sitting comfortably in a chair with your chest lifted and shoulders rolled back. Your facial muscles should be soft, including your jaw. Observe how the breath moves in and out of your lungs today, and compare with your observations on previous days. The breath usually settles after a short time, becoming fuller and deeper on its own. Do not alter the breath, but allow it to be automatic, with your mind simply observing. Keep your eyes closed, and allow them to become passive and receptive. Let their gaze be more in the direction of the chest than straight ahead.
Begin with a soft, smooth exhalation, without any strain, until the lungs feel empty, but without pressing the abdominal muscles.
Take a slow, deep inhalation through the nose, and make sure both lungs are filling evenly. Maintain the eyeballs looking down, especially near the end of the inhalation.
Once the top of the inhalation is reached, release the diaphragm gradually, exhaling slowly, deeply and steadily until the lungs again feel empty. Remember that both the inhalation and exhalation should be of equal duration, and longer than your normal breath.
Less is usually more in pranayama, especially for beginners. When practicing, only slightly deepen your breath and be on the alert for any tension in your body. If you find you have tensed up, go back to regular breathing until you can release the tension. Then begin again. After several cycles of Ujjayi breath you may find you are ready to slightly increase the depth of your breath without disturbing your body. If sitting in a chair creates tension when you practice, try lying down on the floor with a pillow under your chest and another folded in half under your head.
When you are finished with your practice, relax with a few cycles of normal breath before opening your eyes and returning to the outside world. Hopefully you now feel more relaxed and refreshed. Remember that pranayama is all about daily practice, even if only for a few minutes. Consider it as an alternative to a coffee or tea break. Remember to always consult with your health care professional before starting any new exercise regime. Happy breathing!
- Rebecca Taggart
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco yoga instructor.