“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” – Sylvia Plath
I remember once going to a yoga class a few years ago, without music, and finding it, well, pretty annoying. Where was the music? Where was the distraction? I didn’t want to just listen to everyone around me breathing for an hour! Gross.
I’ve since become a bit more easy-going and a bit less judgemental of other people breathing around me. (Sound, thanks yoga.)
Ujjayi breathing is the type of breath used whilst practising asanas. It is made by gently constricting the back of the throat on the inhale, and breathing as though fogging up a mirror on the exhale (but with the mouth closed). It makes a pleasant ocean-like sound, and a room full of people using ujjayi breath is a bit like a symphony of beauty.
Using ujjayi breath during asana practice improves focus and awareness in our bodies. It ignites an internal fire in our core, keeping us grounded and stable. It also allows us to stay longer in poses than we would otherwise be able. It is all-round deadly. I definitely could not stay in Vrksasana with my eyes closed for that long unless I was doing ujjayi breathing!
Yoga also offers us breathing excercises for when we are not on the mat – known as Pranayama. I love to practice some pranayama in the morning before asanas, or anytime during the day if I’m in need of a bit of centre-ing.
Pranayama helps bring your breath back to your natural rhythm. Stress, anxiety, depression or even just lack of down time can make for short, shallow breathing. This can easily become a habit that stays even after the feeling that caused it is gone.
Here are three types of pranayama you can do at home, on a train, at a bus stop, anywhere:*
Kapalabhati consists of alternating short, explosive exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales.
Sit in a comfortable position, spine straight, eyes closed. Take a deep inhale and then do twenty short, sharp exhalations by contracting the abdominal muscles. This is one cycle. Take a few normal breaths and repeat twice. You can place your hand on your stomach to feel the abdominal muscles working, or simply rest your hands on your knees. Try to isolate the lower belly while practising Kapalabhati – it should be the only thing working. Notice if your shoulders are raised or facial muscles are tensed and let that tension go.
Benefits: Increases flow of oxygen around the body, improving circulation and digestion.
Nadi Shodhana consists of alternating the breath between left and right nostrils.
Sit in a comfortable position, spine straight, eyes closed. Rest your left palm on your left knee. Place the first two fingers of your right hand on your right palm (this is known as Mrigi Mudra). Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring-little fingers. Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat 5 or 10 times. You can use your left hand to help you keep count.
Benefits: Lowers heart rate, reduces stress and anxiety, synchronizes the left and right sides of the brain.
Brahmari consists of making a soothing humming sound with your ears closed.
Sit in a comfortable position, spine straight, eyes closed. Rest your fingertips on your head. Press your thumbs gently over your ears to block outside sound. Be sure to keep your chest open and spine straight – elbows pointed out to the sides, not forward! Take a deep breath in, and hum for as long as is comfortable. Repeat 5 times, taking a few normal breaths between each hum.
Benefits: The vibrations give such a soothing effect that it can instantly relieve tension, anger and anxiety. Lowers heart rate and can relieve headaches.
*You might get some funny looks but feck it.