Often when we hear the word “yoga,” we think of static physical postures like Downward Dog or Headstand. But what if yoga wasn’t about the pose at all? What if the postures were more like illustrations of the breath? What if your practice could take you to a place that was so deeply hypnotizing, you couldn’t even Instagram it?
This is the real secret of the yoga practice. When we learn not only to breathe with the postures, but actually breathe them, we can enter into a place where our focus and attention is so unified that there’s nowhere else to be but inside our bodies. This is the root meaning of yoga in Sanskrit: “union.” This can be such a sweet experience that a friend of mine once described it as “the feeling of someone brushing your fur in the right direction.” That might sound nuts—until you try it. Here’s how:
First you must understand that breath already is movement. Take a deep breath and notice what happens. On the inhale, you get a little bigger, and more expansive: your belly and chest rise. As you exhale, you get a little smaller, a little denser: your belly and chest contract. The inhale has an upward flowing energy, called prana. The exhale is a downward flowing energy called apana.
Ujjayi breath, or the Breath of the Warrior, is often described as a whispering sound at the back of your throat, but it actually begins in your pelvic floor. As you lift it gently, imagine a chain reaction rising along the deep core, drawing your belly gently in on all sides, like a corset, and sending the breath up into the diaphragm and side ribs. The lift moves right into the throat and soft palate, which mirrors both the shape and the movement of the pelvic floor. This subtler contraction slows and smoothes the breath, creating the whispering sound Ujjayi is known for.
There’s a natural space at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale before the breath flips over that’s called the kumbacha, or “retention.” We can pause there, not forcibly holding the breath, but simply waiting to continue the breath cycle. The best dancers know how to lead by listening to their partner; the pause gives the body space to move inside the breath.
Try this: follow your inhale with your arms, taking them up towards the sky and helping the ribs to expand. Follow the exhale as the arms come back down again, expressing the natural contraction of the ribs. Imagine the arms illustrating the upwards movement of prana, the inhale, and the downward flow of apana, the exhale. If your arms need more time to reach all the way up, the kumbacha gives your breath a way to wait for its dance partner.
This is the essence of the Sun Salutation. Each movement is linked with either an upward flowing energy (inhale) or a downward flowing energy (exhale). The postures illustrate the shape of the breath as it carries us through the sequence. (If you like, try my audio version of a sun salutation here: http://oceanandcrow.ca/studio)
Classically, the Ujjayi should be a four count on inhale and exhale, but I personally love the practice of exploring my personal rhythm as it changes day to day and allowing the breath to be as long as it likes. My body talks to my breath, and my breath teaches my body. There’s nowhere else to be but in the breath and in this moment. Now we are doing yoga.