Missing the Hot Yoga Room?

Missing the Hot Yoga Room? Try Ujayi Breathing

I don’t know about you, but I have had the opportunity to spend a lot more time outside lately. Thanks to my better half, we got the yoga shed running, a garden planted, and the hammock set up. It’s a regular paradise in the backyard these days.  And in a time of chaos and uncertainty, I’m feeling so blessed to get back to nature and invest in diversions beyond the norm. But maybe you don’t feel that way. Maybe you’re stuck in a tiny apartment or abroad in a cold hotel in Russia. Perhaps you have cabin fever and feel like you’re about to pull out your hair, thinking, “If only I could get back to the hot room…(I could maintain my sanity)…”

Friend, I get it. I think we all do. My yoga practice is my rock, the thing that keeps me sane, the eye within the storm of my life. Without it, I feel lost. Scratch that, without it, I AM lost.  And perhaps if you only know the hot 26&2, that’s how you feel too.

But I’m here to deliver good news! You’re not lost, and neither am I! We’re all in this together. And though it might not feel that way, we’ve got you boo. You’ve been training for this. You are ready. With your yoga practice, you have developed strength, in the body and the mind. Flexibility, to adapt and overcome. Wisdom, to know that this is only temporary. And control, of yourself and your breath. 

Your Breath is Your Life

Pranayama is the first and the last exercise we do in the hot yoga room. These breathing techniques not only prepare us for the class that is to come but also for the world beyond. It is like the door to a different reality, whether going in or out. It primes our mind, prepares our body, awakens the energy within us and sharpens our focus. By practicing pranayama, we tap into our Selves, enabling us to, “Be here now,” in the class and in the pose. If you’ve ever felt like you were dying in a bikram class, it’s because you lost your breath. It’s the only autonomic response we have the ability to conscientiously regulate. When you control your breath, you control your life. This is your intrinsic power.

Although we only practice two in the original hot yoga series, there are many types of pranayama techniques out there. Some increase energy to clear the mind and help you feel fresh. Others are cooling, cultivating relaxation and calm. Different techniques help you regulate your emotions or bodily functions, and help you find your center. If you haven’t had the chance to practice yoga lately and you’re feeling not-quite-right, you can always practice pranayama on it’s own.

Ashtanga Yoga

But, if you are looking for a vigorous asana practice that generates internal body heat, you might want to explore the Ashtanga yoga system. David Swenson (https://ashtanga.net) reinforces five (5) key elements to Ashtanga yoga practice; Ujayi breath, Bandhas (locks), Drishti (gaze), Asanas (poses), and Vinyasa (flow). Of all of these elements, he considers the Ujayi breath as the most crucial element of the five.

“Yoga connects the inner world to the outer world… this is done through the avenue of breath…”- David Swenson

Ujayi Breathing Explained

Ujjayi is an ancient breathing technique developed in India that has been used for thousands of years. This is not a relaxing belly breath, but rather the opposite; the lower abdomen is to remain slightly contracted thoughout. Contracted muscles are working muscles, and by the laws of physics, work creates heat. A 1930 issue of the Yoga Mimamsa provided a discourse and illustrations of proper spine and hand positions for Ujayi practice, and a comparison of oxygen intake utilizing a “belly breath” (a protracted abdomen), versus the Ujayi breath (a controlled abdomen with ideal expansion of the ribcage). Their laboratory experiments concluded that the Ujayi technique created a higher intake of oxygen, emphasizing the importance of Uddiyana bandha in Ujayi.

Furthermore, we slightly close the glottis and contract the pharynx, thus creating friction; doubling the work. The turbulence of the air passing from the upper to the lower airway is a little noisy and sounds like a continuous,  “sawwwwww.” The chest expands and the diaphragm drops. Next, we pause and allow the intrathoracic pressure to equal that of the atmosphere. The right nostril is closed, and the air releases, making a deep “haaawwwwwww”. Employ the root and throat locks between the inhale and exhale. Basically, keep the pelvic floor firm, belly in, spine straight and don’t allow any air to escape from your lungs through your throat until you conscientiously choose to do so.

Ujayi Pranayama Seated Position (Yoga Mimamsa, July 1930)

How to Practice Ujayi

Many texts will detail the Ujayi pranayama technique, including the following step-by-step instructions from The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, with a foreward Swami Vishnu Devananda.

  1. Find a comfortable position, sitting is preferable but the most important thing is to keep a straight spine.
  2. Spread out your right hand and bend the index and middle finger down to your palm, keep the thumb out and the middle and pinky extended.
  3. Rest the thumb against the right side of the bridge of your nose and the ring finger against the left.
  4. Engage your pelvic floor by pulling in the lower belly just below the navel
  5. Slightly close the glottis while inhaling fully through both nostrils 
  6. Retain the breath and press your chin to your chest  (Jalandhara Bandha) as you contract the anal sphincter muscle and abdominal muscles (Moola Banda)
  7. Release the two locks, close your right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through your left nostril
  8. Start by practicing 5 rounds and increase gradually to 20

This is an advanced breathing technique, so don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’re not doing it correctly at first. Remember, it’s an experiment. Notice how you feel as you do it. Check in with your body and see how much heat you create. Listen to the sound you make. After some practice, you’ll build muscle memory and eventually not even have to think of all the steps.

Ujayi in Ashtanga Yoga

Ujayi breathing is essential in the Ashtanga Yoga system as brought to the United States through Pattabhi Jois. To learn how to incorporate this into your practice, join David Swenson, one of the world’s most respected and experienced teachers of Ashtanga Yoga, this Friday, May 1st.

David Swenson at PURE Yoga Texas, Friday, May 1, 2020