We can all recall the last time we attended a yoga class that was too difficult, or the last time we felt nervous or scared. In these instances, our breaths naturally became shorter and faster; our hearts started to pump faster. One of the many objectives of maintaining a consistent asana practice is to build stamina and strength such that the practice itself goes from “effort to effortless”. Unlike fitness workouts such as HIIT, the objective is not to allow your heart to go into a frenzy. We want to maintain constant control over the breath, and the heart. This is why you always hear teachers saying “deep inhales, and long exhalations”.
In fact, apart from regulating your heart rates, remembering to breathe at specific junctures of an asana sequence has other benefits. This has been acknowledged in fields other than Yoga. Athletes and martial arts practitioners access the breath’s primal force by timing moments of exertion with forced exhalation. Yogis refine this by coordinating the rhythm of the breath with movements in the Asanas, generally coupling inhalation with expansion and exhalation with deepening [ fn 1 ]. Think about, for example, Janusirsasana. For someone who is not very flexible, one of the best advices that I have received is to first reach for your feet ; inhale whilst allowing your body to “lift” a little ; exhale as you suck your tummy in and go deeper into the pose by allowing your tummy and subsequently your chest to touch your leg. The same technique is applicable in twisting poses such as Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved Chair Pose) and even Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose).
In Asana practice, as we flow through the poses, we should aim to maintain Ujayi breathing. This means “victory” breathing. To create Ujayi breath, constrict the back of your throat in a manner that is similar to the constriction made when speaking in a whisper. This is an audible breath that is often compared to the sound of the ocean. Although there is a constriction of the throat, the Ujayi breath flows in and out through the nostrils, with your lips remaining gently closed. [ fn 2 ]
Done correctly, Ujayi breath helps to create heat in your body whilst you maintain a steady heartbeat through the asana sequence. The muscle that is constricted when creating Ujayi breath is called the Glottis. It is a muscular aperture below the pharynx and nasal passages. Opening and closing the glottis regulates the flow of air into the lower respiratory tract. This is usually done unconsciously. When adopting a yogic breathing technique, we are seeking to consciously regulate the airflow through the Glottis. By consciously narrowing the opening of the Glottis, we will increase the turbulence of the air passing through the nasal and pharyngeal cavities. This action increases the transfer of heat to the air from the blood-rich mucosal lining, raising the temperature of the air above normal. [ fn 3 ]
To cultivate discipline in breathing in an Asana practice, I started by practicing Surya Namaskar really slowly, ensuring that the inhales and the exhales are done at the correct junctures. Starting out, it felt really artificial and I was not able to achieve the ideal “one breath, one move”. However, by consciously remembering to inhale at the half way lift, exhale at the jump back, etc., eventually I felt that the breathing came pretty naturally – at least for this warm up sequence.
This is an area which I am still working on, particularly when attending a difficult yoga class. Nonetheless, I hope the above helps!
fn 1: Ray Long, The Key Muscles of Yoga : Scientific Keys, Volume 1, Chapter 24, Page 212
fn 3: Ray Long, The Key Muscles of Yoga : Scientific Keys, Volume 1, Chapter 24, Page 214