The Importance of Breath in Yoga Practice

by Lola Rephann

Anyone who’s ever taken a yoga class has heard the teacher’s direction to breathe. But beyond the usual “make sure you’re breathing” or “take a deep breath” cues, are we ever really taught how to breathe well? Why is it important to breathe well, and what benefits will breathing well confer on us?

To “breathe well” is to take breathing out of the unconscious activity it is for most people and bring awareness to it. In the same way that meditation helps us become aware of the content of our thoughts, by observing the breath as we practice yoga we begin to see our unconscious patterns, such as holding the breath, irregular breath, or strained breath.

The breath that accompanies a dedicated yogi’s practice is Ujjayi breath. The Sanskrit word Ujjayi means “victorious.” It is said that the practice of Ujjayi helps overcome all derangements of prana, or vital energy. Ujjayi breath is a deep, slow breath with sound. The sound is created by a constriction of the glottis, the muscle in the throat that opens and closes to produce speech. Sometimes called “ocean breath” due to its sound mimicking the ocean, Ujjayi regulates breath, and therefore prana, in and out of the body.

By regulating the breath, the body-mind receives exceptional benefits. Blood pressure decreases, oxygenation increases, metabolism increases, and the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system dominates. This “rest and digest” branch is little known, compared to the “fight, flight or freeze” nervous system state most urban dwellers unfortunately find themselves in. When we practice yoga in a predominantly parasympathetic state, our practice is soothing and meditative, we remember what we learned more readily, and we set ourselves up, biochemically, for continued healing and repair after our practice concludes.

Ujjayi breath also helps us unwind tension in the body. By noticing where the breath flows and where it doesn’t, we begin to address patterns of tension, blockage, numbness, or disconnection. I like to call Ujjayi breath “fingers on the inside,” as feeling the passage of breath through the body develops a sense of the body’s inner texture and tone. This skill allows us to direct our breath, and our practice, for healing, increased vitality, and overall balance.

Learn Ujjayi breath under the guidance of a competent teacher. Ujjayi breath is a key facet in my Heated Yoga Fusion classes at Yoga in the Heights.

(Photo by Margaret River)