The modern day problem – although breathing is an activity we were born with, and generally we do not need to learn how to perform it, we turn to breathe in a shallow way, especially in times of anxiety and stress.  It has also become common for people to assume unnatural positions for long periods of time due to the nature of their jobs, eg. in a sedentary job, we often sit slumped in our chairs.  This restricts our full breathing capacity and makes breathing intervals shorter and faster.
The role of breath is critical in the practice of asanas.  In performing asanas, we learn to let the movement follow the breath, let the breath guide the movement, which eventually leads to the body effortlessly riding the waves of the breath.  At this point it is not we who move the body, but rather the power of our breath.  We become able to breathe into every single cell, which is equivalent to spreading energy or “prana” throughout all parts of the body.
When we focus on breathing, the control of breathing shifts from brain stem / medulla oblongata to cerebral cortex (evolved part of brain). Any emotion, stress or random thoughts are removed or subdued. Emotions create tension in muscles, stiffness and blockages to the flow of energy. Awareness of the breath and focusing on it help makes prana free flowing.
Focus on the breath also assists in controlling the movements, which can reduce the risk of injury. Our muscles can work in a systematic way with greater coordination with the nervous system, which constantly transmit information and feedback to the muscles to take appropriate action to complete the intended movement.
In the practice of Ashtanga Primary Series, we adopt a breathing technique called Ujjayi or victorious breath.  It is a deliberate gentle constriction of the opening of our throat (glottis) to induce a resistant, slower than usual intake of air and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this same resistance.  This produces a sound that is akin to the sound of rolling ocean waves .
A deep inhale generated by Ujjayi breathing brings in fresh oxygen to purify the blood, and the oxygenated blood then goes around to all the tissues, organs, and cells to nourish them.  Similarly, a complete exhale helps eliminate the stale air (carbon dioxide) in the lungs and expels waste by-products that would otherwise slow down or impair our bodily systems if too much toxins are accumulated.
In addition, ujjayi breathing generates internal heat and warms the body and muscles.  This can prepare and enable us to stretch deeper into a pose, and prevent injury.  Take note that this internal heat generated is different from that of heat generated by external sources, such as a hot yoga room.  In a hot yoga room, you can feel that your body temperature is warm, but your muscles, especially the smaller and deeper ones, may not necessary be warmed-up or “awakened”.  This can create a false sense of readiness, and lead to excessive stretching when your muscle is not ready, which can result in injury.
Lastly, ujjayi breathing helps calm the mind and stop the mind from wandering.  Often when we are in a pose, our mind start to wander, and thoughts float in and out or there will be one that is sticky, refusing to go away.  By directing your focus on the sound of your breath (ocean waves), you draw focus inwards within you, your mind stops wandering, and the state of Pratyahara is achieved.
The importance and essence of breathing in yoga and in our lives cannot be over-emphasized.  WE ARE NOTHING WITHOUT OUR BREATH.  So let’s start breathing today!
200 hour YTT
Jul – Oct Weekend

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