Have you ever been in a stressful situation and noticed that you clenched your jaw, you tightened your muscles and you completely forgot to breathe? We have all been there at one or more times in our lives. When we do this, we put ourselves and our bodies into a “fight or flight” mentality, making it much more difficult to effectively handle the situation facing us and enhancing our feelings of anxiety. One of the many benefits of yoga is that we learn to use our breath as we move through each pose, helping us to focus, gain clarity and calm the mind. When practicing yoga, we develop the ability not only to use our breath on the mat, but in our everyday lives as well.
The true purpose of yoga (other than to get us sculpted and in prime physical shape) is to help us reach a state of focused concentration so as to experience a more centered, balanced existence. Pranayama, or breath work, is a very important tool to get us to this state. In yoga we move with purpose and intention, where every movement is connected to the breath.
The breath we use in yoga is called ujjayi (ooh-JAI-yee), or “victory breath.” Ujjayi breathing is characterized by an audibly hollow, deep, soft sound coming from the back of the throat - something like a soft snoring sound. As you inhale, the throat constricts and the breath is directed to the back of the throat, and as you exhale the breath comes up from the back of the throat and out through the front of the nasal passages, making a soft “haaaaa” sound. This constriction in the back of the throat serves to strengthen the lungs and diaphragm, since these organs have to pull harder against the resistance in the throat. With the added push and pull, the lungs work more as a bellows, creating additional energy that can be focused and channeled into different parts of your body. You will not tire as easily, and the sound in the throat will naturally draw your attention to the breath, thus strengthening your concentration, making it more difficult for your mind to wander.
Making yoga a part of our everyday life can make a critical difference in how we handle difficult or uncomfortable situations. The more regular our practice of yoga becomes, and the more we focus our practice on moving with the breath, the more we can use the breath to calm the mind, reduce anxiety and more effectively handle difficult life situations.
So…next time you are in a yoga class, remember to breathe. You may find that the next time you are faced with a stressful situation…you just might breathe then as well.