Here's the scene. It's my first day of Forrest Yoga teacher training. Ana has us make two lines, facing each other. Then we walk in towards each other so we are 6 inches in front of the opposite person. We have to take turns demonstrating and teaching Ujjayi breath, the most basic, important and pervasive breath in yoga. She shows us first how it's done and I listen to the deep, Darth Vader-like sounds emanating from her on inhale and exhale.
Wait a second. On inhale?! I had been doing yoga for 10 odd years and never had I ever been taught Ujjayi breath on the inhale. What the...how?! Truly I thought Ujjayi was just an exhale thing. Okay, so let's do this. I practice engaging my throat to make that delicious ocean sound on inhale and - SNORT! Right in my partners face. I try again. Extra loud snort. Shit. I immediately become confused, self-conscious and a bit embarrassed. I call over Zach, one of the assistants, and tell him my dilemma. He smiles, disarming me, and tells me to go for it, even if I make crazy animal sounds in my throat. And I do.
I now only sometimes make questionable noises with my Ujjayi breath and I've learned to laugh and have fun with the mistakes I'm making in the quest of finding my breath. And what a breath it is. Ujjayi is cleansing and calming. It builds a gentle heat inside you. It naturally slows down and smooths out the pace of your breathing. In Forrest Yoga, we use Ujjayi breath through the entire practice, in every pose and every transition. It's delicious, and as you learn to control your breath, you learn how your breath influences your energy, your focus and your experience.
Time to practice, partner completely optional! Sit or stand up straight. Open your mouth and whisper "Hello." There, you've found your whisper muscles in the back of your throat. You'll use these for Ujjayi. Inhale through your mouth, gently constricting your throat and whisper muscles to create an ocean-like sound. Exhale through your mouth with whisper muscles engaged. It should be easier and louder on the exhale, sounding like a deep sigh, or like you are fogging up your glasses. Repeat 5 times. Next step. Inhale through your mouth and halfway through, close it and continue the breath through your nose (all the while engaging your whisper muscles so breath is audible). Exhale through your mouth and halfway through, close it and continue the breath through your nose. Tricky, I know! But this helps reinforce the use of your throat muscles as you transition between mouth and nose. Repeat 5 times. Last step, inhale and exhale through the nose while gently engaging whisper muscles. Repeat 5 times. This is full-on Ujjayi.
Here are some tips. Breathing through the mouth is much easier than the nose, so start there. Likewise, if you lose your Ujjayi breath during class, reconnect with it by breathing through your mouth. Exhale is easier than inhale. It can take a lot of practice to feel Ujjayi on the inhale (I can attest). Resist getting discouraged! I learned after much experimentation that I was snorting because I was constricting my throat too much. Play around with how much you engage the back of your throat so you can find that sweet spot where you can sift your breath comfortably. Lastly, practice, practice, practice. During your yoga class, always, but my second favorite time to practice is in my car. It gives me something to focus on other than traffic and crazy drivers and my endless task list. And I reap all the divine benefits of the breath at a time when I need it the most.