Breath – inhalation, retention, exhalation, retention, repeat... the ongoing process of maintaining life in our body.
We may go for weeks without food, for days without water, but we cannot survive more than about a minute without breath. It is the catalyst for all our cellular activities.
In yoga, we employ a specific method of breathing, called Ujjayi breath, aka breath of the warrior. Inhaling and exhaling are controlled by a light restriction in the throat, similar to when we want to fog a window pane or clean our reading glasses. It sounds a little bit like what we hear when we put our ear to a large sea shell, like a conch.
Breathing has many functions in yoga. Foremost, when we breathe in Ujjayi, we can hear our breath going in and coming out of our body. It helps with the practice of asanas to focus on this rhythm. At the same time, the breathing rhythm should – ideally – be the guide for movement itself. Each breath accompanies one phase of a posture. For example, lying on our back, we raise a leg on an inhale, and we lower it for the time of the exhale. In a sun salutation, we raise our arms up on an inhale, and we dive forward with the exhale. Upon arrival in the forward bend, we do the halfway rise on another inhale, and the release on the next exhale, and so on. It is easy to make and sustain a physical effort on an inhale, and to release that effort with an exhale. These two pairs are natural companions.
We can also use our breath efficiently for the sustaining of a physical effort, such as the extended side angle in Warrior II. The deep breathing during the side angle pose helps with the muscle work to keep us in the extended posture, where we demand quite an effort of our abdominal, dorsal and lumbar musculature to hold the upper body over our bent thigh, as well as of the forward thigh, if we want to hold it in a horizontal position, with the knee aligned over the ankle. It is important to keep our awareness on a deep breathing practice, pulling the air all the way into the diaphragm, in a slow and regular fashion.
Ujjayi breathing will ultimately contribute to keeping the yogi in a state of meditation, as the natural in and out of our own breath will feel soothing and mantra-like.
On a cultural side note, in some Indian literature, the breath is associated with the notion of “prana”. I personally tend to disagree with this. Prana in yogic, meditative terms is the “original life energy”. It is pure spiritual energy, in its most subtle form. An experienced yogic teacher knows how to transmit this prana to the yogis during a meditation session. In traditional Indian festivities, such as Diwali, the festival of lights, there will also be sweets called “prassad”. Those sweets were equally prepared by a yogic master, who infused them with this same spiritual life energy (prana). Any person who eats these sweets derives a benefit for the physical body when this energy is absorbed during the digestion and diffused into the body with the nutrients.