Ujjayi Breath: Come Back To Self

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I refer to the Breath quite often. I consider it the foundation of any yoga practice. If you choose to meditate, go to a Bikram class, study Kundalini, or try other forms of yoga, you’re going to focus on the breath.

That is certainly true in the Ashtanga Primary Series. As mentioned in the previous blog, there are four main elements in the historic Ashtanga practice: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. Here We will focus on the breath. Ujjayi is a special form of breathing that brings energy, power, and movement while practicing yoga. The idea is to create a flow and a rhythm in the body that is almost meditative that keeps you focused and in the present moment while you move through the Ashtanga Vinyasa postures. Here is another description of how you can engage the Ujjayi Breath.

Sit comfortably on your yoga mat. (Actually, you can practice this way of breathing ANYWHERE! Try practicing while sitting upright at the dinner table, at your office desk, or even at a stop light in your car.) If you’re new to the breath, try this. Open your mouth slightly and take a deep breath in through the mouth. You may experience a coolness hit the back of your throat. Now exhale through your mouth as if you’re fogging a mirror. Notice that you are using the muscles of your throat to give energy to the breath. Now, continue breathing this way, but close your mouth. Air will continue to move in and out of your nose, but the action and energy of the breath will come form the muscles in the back of your mouth. The sound of the breath has been described in many ways: wind in the trees, the waves of an ocean, and even resembling the breathing of Darth Vader!

One wants to create this Ujjayi Sound. The sound is like a mantra that the mind can settle into without being distracted by other thoughts. If you lose the connection with the breath, you may lose the connection to Self. Learn to listen to the breath. It keeps you in the moment. The breath is an important element in the Ashtanga Yoga practice because the practice itself is so physical in nature. One can easily think that practicing yoga is JUST a physical exercise. Yoga is more than that. The Ashtanga method teaches us to be mindful of ourselves and to stay focused so that it becomes more than just a physical practice. Yoga’s intention is to be a holistic experience. Yoga means union; a union of the body, mind, and spirit.

So if you practice Ashtanga Yoga or Kundalini Yoga, you’re going to rely on the breath as a foundational resource. Realize, too, that the breathing is something you do ALL the time (obviously.) We tend to forget, though, that we’re breathing. We become distracted by the outside world. Taking a moment in stillness, or even in movement, you can focus on your breathing as a way to come back to Self. Try it right now. It only takes a few seconds. See? Now you’ve done yoga.


Drishti: Looking Out. Looking In.

With so much going on around us, it can be so easy to become distracted. It can be a challenge sometimes to focus on one thing when there are hundreds of thoughts running through your head and so many things going on outside of ourselves. It can be overwhelming at times. I often think how hard it can be just going to the grocery store and trying to pick out a cereal. Have you seen how many cereal brands and types there are? Try picking out a toothpaste! Oh my! Even trying to decide on a cereal or toothpaste can be such an overwhelming experience that it is just easier to walk away. But this just doesn’t happen in the grocery store. What about in other parts of our lives? Think about the many distractions that you face on a daily bases. How does one focus and calm the mind?

In the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Practice, there are four main elements to be aware of: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. For the next four blog entries, I will focus on these elements. This week I will discuss on the last one: Drishti. Drishti refers to your gaze or focus. In one aspect of the gaze, you are physically looking outward, but the real looking is internally: to go inside of yourself. This inward gaze creates a stronger and deeper connection with yourself. The drishti is designed to bring balance to your internal and external practice. Externally, when you are in a yoga pose, your gaze can simply follow the stretch. Let’s try this pose…..

Extended Side Angle Pose
Come to a Warrior Two pose with your right foot/hand forward. To move into the Extended Side Angle Pose, start reaching out toward the wall in front of you. This will create an angled upper body. (Try to keep the lower part of the body stable so that you do not collapse into your knee or hip.) When you cannot extended any further, lower your right hand toward the floor and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. (The right hand does not necessarily need to touch the floor. The fingertips and can just reach down toward the floor. You want to keep your heart open to the left side of the room.) Turn your gaze upward and look at your left hand. This is your drishti.

Now, although you are looking up at your fingers, allow the gaze to look past your fingers…toward the ceiling, toward the sky, toward the heavens. This distant gazing practice is really a meditative practice that keeps you focused and in the moment. While in the posture, the internal gazing may be about your awareness of your breath, or noticing if there is any tension in the body. (After you do the right side of this pose, feel free to do the other side.)

There are nine drishti points you can use while practicing yoga: tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, hand, toes, far to the right, far to the left, thumbs, sky. Again, these are physical places to set your eyes, but the main idea is to look inward. It can be an effective practice to calm and still the mind when we are faced with the many external distractions. Try adding drishtis to your next yoga practice this week.

Next blog entry will focus on Ujjayi Breath.

Wring It Out!

Ever have those weeks where you are just absolutely filled to the rim? You’ve done SO much during the week that you feel like you can just burst! There’s been business meetings, taking the kids to basketball practice, PTA meetings, committee deadlines, grocery shopping, eye doctor appointment, working out at the gym. Shall I go on? The list grows and grows. It can seem endless sometimes. So, what are you doing about it? These things really can’t go to the wayside. You can’t always call out, “Calgon! Take me away!” (I just tried it, and I wasn’t whisked away to a hot bubble bath with rose petals and soft lighting.)
Well, since we cannot always escape the daily grind, at least we can take a few minutes of the day to release some of the tensions that can build up due to heavy schedules. The pose this week will feature a twisting posture: Revolving Triangle. I like the idea of twisting postures. When I teach them, I have my students imagine they are a wet sponge: full, dense, and heavy. In order to be rid of that excess water, one needs to wring out that sponge. We can do the same with our bodies.
Revolving TriangleStart in Mountain Pose. Set your intention here. Take some deep cleansing breaths to bring your body and mind to the present moment. Also, think a bit about the fullness you’ve experienced the last few days and the desire to release some (or all) of that heaviness.
Step your right foot forward on your yoga mat. See how wide you can take your feet. See if they can move relatively close to the edges of your mat. Have your right foot pointing directly forward on your mat while the back foot is more at a comfortable angle so the entire foot is planted on the mat. Make sure both legs are straight. Place your hands on your hips and be aware of the alignment of your hips.
Now, while holding onto your hips, imagine you’re holding onto a big pitcher of water that you’re ready to pour. Tip the pelvis so that the right hip drops and the left hip lifts as if you’re pouring water out of the pitcher down your right leg. Tip as far as you can go while maintaining a nice alignment in the hips. (The right leg should remain straight.) You may begin to experience a stretching sensation in your right hamstring. Allow the torso to match the angle you’ve created in the tipped pelvis. Now, extend the right hand toward the floor (it doesn’t have to touch the floor; perhaps the hand rests on the inside of your leg) and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. You are now in Extended Triangle Pose. Now we are ready to wring it out!
As you exhale, rotate your torso, maintaining an extended spine, so that your left hand is now reaching down toward the floor and your right hand extends up toward the ceiling. This is a challenging yoga pose, but very effective. (If you need a block to place your hand on, please use one.) In this pose, you’re not only experiencing the twist in the abdominal region, but also you’re gaining flexibility in your hips, legs, and spine. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths. When you’re done, carefully unwind and return to Mountain Pose and prepare to repeat the pose on the other side.
Remember, while holding this posture, think about that wet sponge that you are now wringing out. It may take several breaths (particularly the exhales) to move into this pose deeply and to wring out the sponge completely. When you return to a neutral posture, experience the lightness in your body – having released some of the tension and heaviness your body has been holding onto. The Revolving Triangle Pose can be your own Calgon experience!

Victorious Warrior

Victorious Warrior
In my yoga classes this week, I have been teaching a pose that I’ve been calling “Victorious Warrior.” It’s not a real yoga pose, but it’s a posture that helps generate strength and stability in your core. I combined the posture with the concept of Ujjayi Breathing. Ujjayi means “victorious” in Sanskrit. The idea of the yoga sessions was to find and experience the victories in your life.
That can be the intention for your home yoga practice this week: to take a moment and call to mind your personal successes and victories that you’ve experienced this week. Be proud of the moments when you made great achievements. Give yourself a pat on the back for accomplishing something you’ve been working on. Celebrate!
Ujjayi BreathingStart in Mountain Pose. Be sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor with your toes pointing directly forward with your feet about hip-distant apart. This will establish a strong foundation. Stand tall with strong legs and extended spine. Feel the energy rising up through your body through the crown of your head. Just standing here can give you a sense of feeling victorious. Mountain Pose can help you feel majestic, proud, and confident.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Breathe slowly and deeply. Use the muscles of the throat to engage the Ujjayi Breath. With each inhale, experience how the breath rises high into the chest, expanding the lungs, chest, and opening the heart. Maintain this vibrant, intentional breath by engaging the abdominal lock (i.e. draw the belly button in toward your spine.) This will allow the breath to remain high in the chest space rather than “falling down” into the belly. This way of breathing creates that uplifting, victorious sensation in your body. Take 10-15 breaths here. Celebrate the stillness, celebrate your victories, celebrate the moment.
Victorious WarriorAs mentioned, their really is no such thing as Victorious Warrior, but a variation of Warrior II and Side Angle Pose combined that generates strength and stability in the core body.
Come to Warrior II. Start with you right foot forward. Bend that leg so it is just about 90 degrees. The back leg is straight with the foot firmly connected to the mat. Be sure your right knee is stacked directly over (or slightly behind) the right ankle. The arms are extended out to the side (with hands reaching toward the front and back of the room.) Engage your core by scooping the pelvis under so that your tailbone is pointing toward the floor. By tilting the pelvis in this manner, you create more opening and alignment in the hips, a release in the low back, and an engaged low abdominal region. Hold this posture for a few breaths with some emphasis on the exhale so you are able to hold the posture. Experience the energy and strength generated in this pose so far.
Now, keep your right hand right where it is while reaching the left hand up over your head. The upper body will shift a bit toward the front knee creating a 45 degree angle with the floor. Be careful NOT to shift the lower body too much. It’s just an upper body movement. If you shift too much energy into the front knee, you might experience a release of the core engagement. For this particular pose, you want to remain strong and connected to the core system. Keep the arms extended and even form a “V-shape” with the arms (turn your hands so your palms are facing each other.) This is what I call Victorious Warrior. The longer you hold this position, the more intense it may feel. Here, be reminded of your inner strength that it took to meet your goals, to be successful, to be victorious. If you can, hold for 5-10 breaths. Return to Warrior II, then do the other side.
By practicing these two yoga poses, we can be reminded that it can take great effort to achieve our goals. And once the goals have been met, you have every reason to celebrate.

Your Entire Power (Part 2)

In the last yoga blog entry, I introduced to you Downward Facing Dog. It is a great pose that allows you to experience your fullest potential and power. You are able to experience physical power as well as emotional and mental power from practicing this pose.

This week, let’s step it up a bit. We are going to take Downward Facing Dog to a new level to really test your power and strength physically, emotionally, and mentally. The pose this week is called “Turbo Dog.” It is a term and pose borrowed from Forrest Yoga.

“Ana Forrest has been changing people’s lives for nearly 40 years.  An internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing, Ana created Forrest Yoga while working through her own healing from her life’s trauma and experience.  With thousands of licensed practitioners around the world, Forrest Yoga is renowned as an intensely physical, internally focused practice that emphasizes how to carry a transformative experience off the mat and into daily life.” (Taken from http://forrestyoga.com/about.)

The pose really embodies what Forrest Yoga is all about. We have the power and strength within us to sustain what life hands us. When life is demanding, we must remember that we DO have the resources within us to make it through the toughest moments.

Turbo Dog

Start on your hands and knees on your yoga mat. Set your intention here. Perhaps think of situations that are more challenging than your typical situations. In these moments, we are often needing relief or strength to get us through. The circumstance can sometimes feel so overwhelming that it feels like it will never end. Can you possibly endure this? YES you can. You DO have the strength and power to survive even the most challenging of life’s moments.

Move your hands forward a bit on your mat, come up onto your toes, then move your hips up and back toward the wall behind you until you have come to Downward Facing Dog. We already know that this posture helps us to tap into our entire power and strength. Now, let’s take it further.

Begin to bend your elbows as if you’re going to place them on the floor. But don’t place them on the mat! Bend them enough so you are just hovering over your mat. To bring more stability to the pose, imagine you are holding onto a block between your elbows that you cannot drop. Or even imagine you’re holding onto a beach ball between your arms. This moving in toward your center creates great strength and stability in the posture. Whenever we move toward the midline – the spine – we experience greater control, self-assurance, confidence, balance, and strength.

Be sure that your breath is also strong and allow it to help you maintain the posture. Focus on the exhale: as you release the breath, engage your Abdominal Lock (Uddiyana Bandha –  oo-dee-YAH-nah BAHN-dahuddiyana = upward (ud = “up, upwards”)  bandha = binding, tying a bond, fetter; putting together, uniting, contracting, combining; mundane bondage, attachment to this world.) This connection further taps you into your inner resources needed to hold in stillness in this pose. As you are able, hold the pose for 5-10 breaths. Finish by lightly resting your elbows on the floor then come to Child’s Pose.

Coming to this resting posture is a reminder, also, of the necessary rest after something very strenuous. It is the time to take care of yourself after enduring strain and stress on the body. Yes, you have the strength to endure, but you also have the strength to nurture. That is the balance we all want to achieve.


John Cottrell