Why Ujjayi?

I remember the first REAL breath I took in a yoga class. I was in my militant phase of practicing yoga every day, if not twice a day. I was about 25 years old and desperately battling what I was told at the time was Bipolar Disorder. Yoga had become my way of managing my emotions. That’s sort of a misnomer, though, because yoga wasn’t managing my emotions at all. Yoga was the 90 minutes each day when I felt totally removed from my emotions. When you’re consumed by your emotions day in and day out and you’re taking piles of pills every morning and night, the best thing possible is to feel removed from your emotions…even if only momentarily.

At the end of this particular class, my teacher, Lori, whom I had been practicing religiously with for about a year, came over to me in savasana and placed the joined tips of her fingers at my solar plexus and whispered “BREATHE” into my ear. My instincts knew she meant to breathe into her fingers; to fill the space she was indicating. It took me a few attempts, but I eventually did breathe into her fingers. The inhale was ragged as I desperately tried to pull the oxygen into my locked diaphragm. The immensity of that single breath was so much bigger than any other breath I felt I had taken in my life. I couldn’t hold the breath in for long; as I exhaled out, an overwhelming wave of emotion passed through me and years of pain seemed to wash through me with that breath.

I spent the rest of that savasana crying uncontrollably. At the end of class, people began to pick up their mats and leave, but I couldn’t move, I could only cry. Something so tremendous was losing its hold on me from the inside out and all I could do was let it happen. I spent another 30 minutes crying on my mat until a sense of lightness washed over me that left me feeling damn near weightless. I couldn’t cry anymore at that point, whatever it was that came over me was done. And I felt nothing short of transformed by it.

When I left the room, I found Lori waiting for me at the front desk. She gave me water, rubbed my arm consolingly and proceeded to have a conversation with me about the importance of breath in our practice. From that day on and for the last 10 years, I have never practiced without my breath. Nor was that the last time breathing dislodged something that was no longer serving me. I have cried innumerable times in my yoga practice and I know first hand it wasn’t from the asanas, the letting go I have experienced over the years has always come from consciously breathing.

So, that’s why I breathe…but why might breathing and learning ujjayi pranayam be important for you? I’d like to offer my own opinion and a little bit of science to answer that question to hopefully persuade you to place a bit more importance on your breath in yoga.

Mindfulness. One of the most important benefits of our yoga practice is that it teaches us mindfulness. When we practice yoga we become more acutely aware of the complexity of the current moment; we tune into everything the mind/body is experiencing from our immediate surroundings…stepping out of the distractions of the mind and fully into the real moment we’re living.

Our practice helps us to listen, rather than always think and do.

More importantly, when we use the breath to set the tempo and rhythm for our practice, it is only then that yoga turns into a moving meditation. You can find meditation promoted by doctors, world-renowned CEO’s, self-help books, etc as the number one way to focus and quiet the mind. Meditation is known to bring people greater peace and clarity of self. When we cease to pair the ujjayi practice with our movements, we cease to practice moving meditation. Only by pairing the breath with the movements does yoga become a moving meditation.

For stress reduction. So, ujjayi is a form of pranayama (breath control) that requires contracting the glottis at the back of the throat so the air “brushes” across the trachea (windpipe) as we breathe. It’s this “brushing” of the air across the back of the throat that also causes stimulation of the larynx and pharynx, two parts of the throat that are innervated (nerve endings brought to) by the Vagus Nerve. Now what do we know about this nerve? One of its number one jobs is to induce relaxation! It is built to counterbalance the stress response we feel in our bodies. When we stimulate the parts of the body that this nerve innervates we are directly stimulating the Vagus Nerve and inducing the relaxation response. What this means is that when we can manually “turn on” relaxation by stimulating the Vagus Nerve through ujjayi breathing! Throw in some long exhales, which further inhibit the stress response, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for pure relaxation!

Weight loss.Did you know that more than 80% of fat leaves the body through our exhales? It’s true! Exercise is particularly good for you because it increases your respiration, but exercises that emphasize breathing are EVEN BETTER!

So, at the end of the day, ujjayi is the proverbial stone you can throw to knock three apples from the tree. With ujjayi added into your yoga asana practice, you are adding meditation into your life, reducing the stress response in the body by promoting relaxation AND losing weight while you do it! If those aren’t reason enough, then I don’t know what is! And, maybe, just maybe, some of you will even experience an emotional release from your ujjayi efforts too…leaving you feeling lighter for letting go of the internal baggage that’s no longer serving you.

You'll find ujjayi at the heart of every Ki Yoga class. Whether we're focusing on Functional Anatomy in the Ki Yoga: Strengthening class or the Subtle Energy Body in the Ki Yoga: Energy Boost class, ujjayi impacts both. When we use ujjayi we simultaneously neurohack our anatomy and align our subtle energy.