Last week, while in the middle of a sun salutation (as the sun was actually setting behind the Andes), I found myself feeling a bit frustrated because my yoga instructor on this day was reminding his off-screen practitioners to continue their Ujjayi breathing. My breath was supposed to sound like the ocean as it traveled through my nose and down my throat, but it sounded more like, well, most of my dad’s siblings when they’re sleeping.
Feeling what some of my senior students do when the classroom task is a bit challenging, I grumpily thought, “What’s the point of this breathing anyway?” And then, even though the yogi’s goal is to practice without so many thoughts clouding her vision, I began to ponder more about my practice. I have been coming to my yoga mat for a number of years, but there are still several parts of yoga theory that I do not really understand.
My current yoga practice is supported by myyogaworks.com, so I turned to one of my favorite instructors, Mia Togo, from the Los Angeles based site. Her responses to my questions are inspiring me to work my snore-ish breath into something more sea-like, settle into my savasana and, perhaps, see if I can even get my students to create some good collective energy with a couple of Oms. Whether you’re an amateur or veteran practitioner, do read on for some thoughtful yogic insight and explanation.
Jamie Bacigalupo: What is the purpose of Ujjayi breathing in our practice?
Mia Togo: Ujjayi breathing is the victorious breath. When we breathe through the nose rather than the mouth, we slow the breath down and begin to direct it where we need it. Ujjayi breath allows us to shift from shallow breathing that can keep the mind in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Slowing the breath down deepens our capacity to take fuller, deeper breaths. I think of it like an irrigation system. Inhaling allows us to direct the breath to create physical, mental, emotional space and the exhale allow us to investigate and explore areas of tension and resistance. When we investigate patterns of holding, we free up stagnant energy and invite prana, our life force.
After practicing yoga we feel more in tune. We are aligning our body, mind, emotion and soulful pursuits. Like anything, it takes practice. It’s helpful to first take an inhale and as you exhale breath through the mouth like you’re fogging a mirror. The sound is like Haaaaa, a soft whisper. Then do your best to create this sound as you inhale and exhale through the nose, the slight constriction at the back of the throat, creates this sound. It’s not forced or loud it should sound like a seashell when you hold it next to your ear. Take time at the beginning of your asana practice to establish your breath and let it set the tone and rhythm. It’s a great gauge to let you know if you’re pushing too hard and when to back off and listen to what you truly need.
JB: Throughout my years of practice, different instructors have encouraged their students to stay in savasana for as long as their busy lives will allow. What is really going on in this corpse pose?
MT: I say to my students all the time that savasana is the most important pose of your practice. We live in busy and destabilizing times and many of us are walking around over-adrenalized and in a heightened state of anxiety. The physical part of the practice is great to move energy around and shift our perspective, direct our mind and open us up. The shadow side is that it can be very intoxicating to want to keep moving and never settle into the stillness because movement can distract us from deeper truths.
A lot can be revealed during our yoga practice, and sometimes it is confronting and even upsetting. What comes up is very real but not always the truth, so it’s our work to look inwardly to dissolve and resolve inner conflict. I think our practice is like a great friend, it will tell you the truth and not BS you. If we truly practice non-attachment, every experience is an opportunity to choose love over fear. The yoga sutras talk about the kleshas, afflictions. The last one is abhinivesha, which means fear of death, or really clinging to life as we know it. I love this one because it reveals where we want to cling to our patterns and hold on to what we know even if it’s not serving us. It reveals issues around control and giving up that illusion so that we can actually evolve. It takes courage and willingness to let the old resistant parts of our selves die off. But it’s the path to invite change and transformation.
Savasana is where we drop in and let what doesn’t serve us die away. It can be scary because we may be used to living defended and protected. Savasana is where we are being asked to let that drop away and be truly exposed and seen. It returns us back to who we are and not who we’ve been conditioned to be. I suggest staying in savasana five to 10 minutes, It restores our energy … and allows us to drop into a deep state of relaxation. Energetically, we are in an open state of vulnerability, our false personality and armor drops away and it allows us a space to drop into our authenticity.
JB: Not all instructors use Om, but you do. I know I enjoy the way something vibrates inside me and alongside the Oms of others, but why do we speak this to begin and end practice?
MT: Om is a beautiful way to harmonize within ourselves and with each other. It doesn’t matter how many times you chant it, but what brings it to life is that it’s expressed with meaning and intention. The mantra Om is the contraction of AUM. AUM has four stages, the waking state, the inward state, the deep sleep and the silence after. The word for Om is pranava, which means hum. We all have our own hum that gets distorted and out of tune. Chanting Om together aligns us back with that hum and with each other. There’s so much to say and reflect on what Om means. It’s the creation of the universe from sound and is expressive of Ishwara, which is the supreme consciousness. This sound vibrates within each of us and repeating the mantra AUM removes obstacles to the mastery of the inner self.