Ujjayi breathing: the act of taking long, smooth breaths as a means of both relaxation and energizing your mind, body, and soul. Also known as ‘ocean breath’.
There is something so meditative about the simple act of breathing. Think about back to when you used to run marathons for track and field day in elementary school. All I can remember is how the gym teacher would chant, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as we jogged lap after lap. At work I take the stairs up five flights from the lunch room to my desk and repeat the same words to myself when I feel like I’m losing my breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This control in your breathing actually strengthens your lungs and your heart, leading to a healthier body. Think of ujjayi breathing as a way to mimic the push and pull of the ocean tide. You pull in your breath and with a whoosh you let it back out, like the sound of the waves.
Yoga is an excellent place to learn to control your breathing. The classes that I attend are quiet spaces where I encounter people from many different walks of life. I usually sit right behind a group of surprisingly nimble elder women who are there to bring some life back into their ageing bones. There are middle aged men who attend the classes to heal their back pains, especially after hunching over a desk all day. There are also other people like me, young professionals who sometimes just need a moment of peace and quiet in an age where everything feels like its moving at light speed.
The word ‘yoga’ itself is a Sanskrit word for unifying the mind, body, and spirit. The practice brings an awareness to your body that improves alignment, flexibility, strength, and balance. It brings you a sense of being comfortable in your own skin, and it teaches you to be patient and, above all, forgiving. It is said that people who practice yoga also learn how to deal with the self as well as deal with others. You learn to listen to your body and gently push your limits with every breath that you take, which carries over into our daily lives as well. We, as a collective community of individuals, need to learn to be patient and understand how to push without going too far.
The yoga studio that I currently frequent is located in downtown Markham, in a unit that has windows that face the northern and eastern directions. The yoga room is a large, rectangular space with two walls of windows and one full wall of mirrors. We enter the room and instantly feel the heat from the heated ceiling panels opening our pores and soaking our bones with warmth. I place my mat down, lay out my towel, lie on my back, and wait for class to begin. The first thing the instructor tells us to do is to always give thanks for the opportunity to practice yoga, and to take a deep breath in through our nose, and out through the mouth with an audible sigh. This is the sound of all our troubles and worries dissolving into the air as we sharpen our focus into the present. We then utter a single Om (more correctly pronounced as Aum) in unison with the class, followed by a silence.
The symbolism of the mantra Aum runs deep in yoga practices. The sound of Aum is in harmony with the sound of the universe, by chanting it you are planting a tiny seed inside yourself that allows you to tune in to everything that exists around you. This is how you acknowledge your connection to all other living things in the universe, with a simple vibration of sound that passes through your lips. Aum is a powerful spiritual symbol in Hindu culture that refers to the duality between Atman (the true self, your soul) and Brahman (the ultimate truth and reality of the universe). It’s used during traditional ceremonies, during rites of passage, and for meditative and spiritual practices such as yoga. It is thought to be the elemental sound associated with the creation of the universe.
It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually.
The instructor leads us through several poses once we complete our initial chant. We do a variety of warrior poses, sun salutations, eagle poses, child’s poses, upward facing dogs and, of course, the ever-popular downward facing dog. When I first started this practice, I struggled to do a decent crow pose, which is where you start in a squat and then lean forwards until you are balancing your full body weight on your hands with your knees resting just above your elbows. I kept falling over and feeling like the palms of my hands were on fire. My warrior poses were shaky and I couldn’t balance on one leg for more than six seconds. It’s kind of intimidating to be in a room full of people who are better than you are. That being said, it’s increasingly rewarding when you are finally able to breathe deeply into a pose with the correct stance and posture. You feel your breath permeating your body and absorb into each of your organs, filling you to the brim.
At the end of our classes, we transition into our final Shavasana pose, which is where we lie down on our backs with our palms facing skywards and take deep, ocean breaths. I always feel that the end of the practice is the best part. I feel the sweat from the past hour roll down my skin and soak into the mat. I relax my shoulders and let my body melt into the ground, limb by limb. There comes a point where my ocean breaths have become shallow and more spaced out without my realizing it. I tune into my body and listen as my muscles tell me how tired they are and marvel at how much I strained myself. Everything else just comes to a stand-still. You tend to forget what you were stressed about at work that day, you forget the argument you had with your friend/parent/significant other. Your mind goes blank and you zone out, almost until you fall asleep.
Finally, the voice of the instructor calls us back to our bodies. I wiggle the awareness back into my fingers and toes and blink my eyes open into the darkened room. We slowly sit back up, backs straight and legs crossed. We take a moment of silence before the instructor thanks us all for sharing our energies with each other. We then take a final breath in through the nose and breathe out with a sigh through the mouth, and say Namaste in unison to formally end the practice. We roll up our mats, put our things away and head back out into our separate lives. The hour that I spend with these strangers means so much more to me than the hours I spend at work or at home with my family. It’s the quiet peacefulness that you absorb into your body and carry with you throughout the rest of your day.
Yoga is for the people who want to bring a sense of balance into their lives. The feeling that you get when you leave the hot room and step into the refreshing cool air beyond it is like no other. Being a part of the practice helps me feel like I’m more in touch with my spiritual side. My breaths have more meaning now and every step I take feels more firm and grounded.
This is what I learned from this practice: inhale the awareness into your body, and exhale the doubt and negativity. In through the nose, out through the mouth.