Hopefully, we are all aware of the importance of breathing in life. It is our most vital lifeline, our source of energy and prana, our constant companion through life. Fortunately, we all have a built in mechanism to keep out breath active whether we think about it or forget it. If we forget to breathe consciously, nature takes over and breathes for us.
The ancient yogis, in their investigations of vital force, energy and breath, realized that automatic breathing is not the most refined way to get prana. By prana, we mean the vital life force and energy that keeps us alive. When we have more prana within us, we have more energy, health and enthusiasm for life. When we have low prana, we become tried, depressed, lifeless.
The Yogis Investigate Life Force
The yogis looked very deeply into prana and breath in order to unlock the secrets of health, vitality and spiritual power. The question was: How can we gain more prana and thus more vitality, so we can live to the fullest of our potential? The problem was that life, in the way most of us live it, costs us energy and we struggle to get that lost energy back. If that pattern continues over time, we gradually lose vitality, energy and eventually our life. The old texts state that when prana leaves the body, life is finished and death is the result.
Anxious to avoid death at all costs, the yogis turned their attention to the refinement of the breath. They devised a whole system of breath control and expansion which most of us know as the 4th limb of yoga: Pranayama. Through special conscious breath patterns, the amount and quality of the personal prana can increase to an almost infinite degree, but it has to be done correctly. Improper practice will result in very little, if any, pranic increase.
Ujjai in Action
We have all been in yoga classes and tried a few pranayama techniques, and some of us have explored breath patterns more deeply. As you might have discovered, some of the breath techniques are difficult at best and require deep concentration and attention. It would seem that the expansion of the prana would require a strenuous and lengthy effort, with uncertain results.
Fortunately, there are simpler methods that almost anyone can learn and practice. Think back to your basic yogic breath that you have probably been taught countless times: ujjai. What is it? It is the foundation breath that should be a constant companion to the physical practice. It is the sound that engages our attention and keeps us in the flow as we move through our Warrior poses, Sun Salutes and all the other asanas.
Most of us think of ujjai primarily as that sound which is made in the back of the throat, but let’s look a bit more deeply into it. The real essence of ujjai is not so much the sound that we are making (for ujjai can be done without any sound) but in the type and quality of the breath that we are making. What we are really after is consistency in the breath: evenness and rhythm.
If you look at how people breathe during the course of the day, you will notice a profound lack of evenness; the breath is fast one moment and slow the next, deep here and shallow there. Usually, it is constantly changing. The most basic key to good health and happiness, as the yogis see it, is an evenness in the prana and life-force. It is uneven breath and the resulting energetic patterns which create problems both physical and mental.
The most effective thing we can do it stabilize our breathing as often as we can and for as long as possible. The way we establish this pattern is practicing ujjai breathing for the entire length of our practice. In this way, we create awareness of our breath and our prana and consciously attempt to smooth and stabilize our energetic patterns. It is actually the most essential aspect of the yoga practice, regardless of which postures or style or system we work with, for breath and prana are our most essential functions.
It is easy to establish steady breathing in your life; you just have to take the time. Each day, sit or lay down for 20 minutes or more. If you only have 10 minutes, or even 5, do it anyway. Make yourself comfortable and begin to breathe smoothly with ujjai, without strain or stress. Establish a basic flow of inhalation and exhalation, even and stable over time. Continue for 5 minutes minimum but 10 or 20 minutes would be best. Concentrate all your attention on the breathing and try not to think of other things. Focus on the breath. If you can, count length of the inhalation and try to keep exhalation the same length. Do not change the length of the breath dramatically while you are doing this. You might even set a timer and keep breathing until the timer goes off. This way you can relax and breathe without worrying about the time. You should feel calm and energized after your breath session, ready to tackle the day’s challenges.
In asana practice, pay special attention to your ujjai breath as you move through the postures and try your best to keep the breath very steady and even. You might have to sacrifice a little physical intensity to keep the breath even, but believe me, it’s worth it.
If you invest in steady breathing over time, gradually you will find a difference in your personal energy, your health, even the functioning of your mind and emotions. It is the most important and worthy investment of your time and attention. Insert time for breathing into your life and the rewards will come back to you ten-fold. Try it for 1 month and see what happens. You will never be the same.