Friday, July 31, 2009

Conscious (of) Breathing

Warning: This is going to be a post on yoga, and I could get a bit boring with my navel-gazing.

I've been thinking of my breath in the past week. Specifically, my ujjayi breathing during my yoga practice. Of course, if you practice Ashtanga yoga, you'll know that ujjayi or "victorious" breath is what we use throughout the entire practice. Breathing only through the nostrils, restricted slightly at the back of the throat so that it makes that slight hissing sound (like a pervert prank-caller deep breathing down the phone in the middle of the night. ...Or as one teacher put it before, like Darth Vader).

Thank you, youtube! Here's what I mean (except you should be making that sound while your mouth is closed, about 2:30 into the video)

It's a measured breath, each inhale & exhale should be the same count, and there should be an evenness throughout the practice. I always know when I'm trying too hard in a posture when my breath starts unravelling and getting short, or I start breathing too hard.

Of course in Ashtanga there are the other 2 points of focus apart from the breath - the bandhas and drishti, but that's not what I've been mulling over this week.

The thing is, I've suddenly become extremely conscious of the way I breathe in Ujjayi. In 7 years, it never used to bother me before... until earlier this week when I practiced next to a girl in a mysore class who was onto the Advanced "A" series. Can I just say: WOW.

Of course I was supposed to be in a state of pratyahara - sense withdrawal, focussing on my own measly Primary series, but when the person next to you is onto such super advanced poses, and at the same time making it seem SOOOOOOOO effortless... it makes you think about your own practice and the way you carry yourself through it too (in a good way, I think). This girl - she seemed as light as a feather, flowing through the Advanced A poses like she had no issue with strength nor flexibilty even though she was the tiniest little thing... but most of all what struck me about her practice was... she was so SILENT.

I mean, of course she was breathing and using her ujjayi breath, but you could barely hear her. Then that made me think about my practice - you can always tell with the poses I struggle with: I start huffing & puffing and have to be reminded to slow the breath, or back off from the pose a bit coz my breath has become too ragged.

And then the very next day after practising next to Advanced A Girl, in the same mysore class, I was practising next to a relative beginner. Well, I've only noticed him at the studio in the past few weeks or so, and he's only practising half the Primary series and struggling in a few places, so I think he's relatively new to the sequence... plus, I got distracted by his breathing because I could hear it. I mean... In contrast to Advanced A Girl,it was pretty in-your-face-pervert-caller type of breathing, and you could tell when he got tired coz the breathing became ragged and short (like me, in Supta Kurmasana!)

So that made me even more conscious of my own breathing. In the sense of... I wonder if my breathing distracts the people next to me... I wonder if my ujjayi breath is being done "right", whatever "right" means. This teacher has never told me to breathe louder or softer, only just brought my awareness to my breath whenever it's gone ragged.

And then it made me think of a teacher I had before who said "breathe loud enough so the person next to you can hear you too"... And then there was yet another teacher who had said the exact opposite "breathe loud enough so only you can hear it - you're trying too hard if the person next to you can hear you".

I was recently at a yoga workshop, and after one of the vinyasa classes, the guy on the mat next to me said something along the lines of "it was great practising next to you coz your constant ujjayi made me aware that I wasn't engaging mine enough". Sounds like a compliment but I was mortified. It made me self-conscious (ARGH! Was I really THAT loud?! That can't be a good thing, right?) And in the past few days, this memory is haunting me now.

Which is probably why I'm in a kerfuffle now... how loud is "loud enough"... Does it even matter? Isn't it to each his own? I'm only asking coz I've noticed that the first few Sun Salutations I've been doing in the past few days, I've caught myself adjusting the volume of my breath... which is completely RIDICULOUS coz I know I'm just making this stuff up in my own head, and since its never mattered before, why should it matter now... and what do I do now since it's obviously become "my thing" this week? (At least I hope it doesn't roll over into next week!)

I think this is also my weak spot coz one of the trainers in my yoga teacher training had written in one of my assessments something along the lines of "I suspect you struggle a bit with the breath in some poses. Always bring your awareness back to your breath." ...This is how stuff just lies dormant in your subconscious, only to spring backatcha when you least expect it. DAMN!

What a long post, sorry if it got boring. And if it did, maybe this video will help even things out. This cat's like the "breath stuff" in my subconscious... biding its time, stalking me. But way cuter.


  1. I've heard the "Darth Vader" description before and I love it :)

    But I know exactly how you feel - some teachers say that the breath should be audible to the person on the next mat (and like you, I've heard some that were MUCH louder than that) but I've heard others say that as the breath is part of the "yoking" process, bringing your own breath, energy and awareness within your own body, then really, as long as the breath is audible to you, then it's "loud enough".

    Personally, I think my ujjayi breathing used to be a lot louder, but it became quieter at some point: now more like a metronome for me, but probably *not* audible to the person on the next mat. Maybe this has to do with my practice becoming much more centered, with energy and breath focused in a closer space around me.

    I hope you don't get stuck fiddling with the volume knob on your own ujjayi - go with what feels right! And as for Advanced A Girl, maybe she watched Star Wars with the volume turned down?

    PS: It will be interesting to see what Sharath has to say on the topic!

    PPS: Love the opening pun re: navel-gazing. Sometimes yogic reflection/introspection does turn our drishti nabhi-wards :)

  2. I think this is a pretty typical experience with ujjayi: at the start, my ujjayi was louder, to make sure I was doing it. Sort of an overdone (intentionally overdone) check on my focus. Yeah, I too got more ragged in the hard poses.

    With time, ujjayi has softened UNLESS i'm in a class with beginners or people who are asking a lot of questions and such, and then I notice that my breathing picks up in volume to, again, bring focus. What's weird is that I don't ask it to; I notice a few poses in, that it's louder than usual, that I can hear it and so can people close to me.

    In self-practice, particularly if I get some pratyahara going (for example, if my ears shut off to external music and my gaze is sort of "passing through" walls, shins, whatever else) I notice that the feel and sound of ujjayi is really delicate and, I'd imagine, quiet.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, guys!

    Miss Om: Yeah, I've always liked the Darth Vader reference. Gives me a giggle when teachers don't take themselves too seriously!

    Patrick: Yeah, I'm pretty sure my ujjayi overall was much louder in the beginning too. I've just not noticed how soft its become over the years, unless I get to a hard pose and then suddenly realize it's all over the place and not measured like it was before.

    Before this, I never really was conscious of ujjayi volume nor gave it much thought. It's just coz this shala I'm at now (it's been a couple months at a new place) is packed to the rafters with a few inches between mats only. Suddenly you become aware of your personal space and conscious not to get too up-close to the people around you. A bit hard especially when you're rolling around in Garba pindhasana! ..or even trying to engage ujjayi!

    You know how they say your voice sounds different to you than it does to everyone else coz of the way it resonates internally through your nasal passages & skull? I wonder if the same applies with your breath too. So what seems "really loud" to you isn't really that loud at all to the people around you. Like how you said the ujjayi gets delicate and how you imagine it sounds quiet? It feels like even when I get to a place where my ujjayi feels light & delicate, it still SOUNDS loud to me. But it could just be me internalizing it. I'm a bit OCD, as you can tell.

    Oh dear, I think I need to get out (of my head) more! The experiment continues... will keep you guys updated! :p

  4. Really interesting post! Funny how I've never read any blogger write about it before (but then, I miss a lot).

    I've heard many things from different teachers too, but currently mine isn't so much worried about the volume as the quality. His biggest thing is, "I want to hear the INHALE as well as the exhale". I've really concentrated on hearing the inhale and it has helped even out my breath significantly. I think my exhales were longer than my inhales and definitely more audible.

    I have a loud breath, but it makes me feel good and stable. I've heard some loud breathers that are close to moans or grunts, but as you described- it's usually a beginner. The breath is hard to get at first! Out of all the things I've learned in my practice, the breath is my favorite. I feel like I can do it no matter how old or decrepit I am!

  5. So it's been about a week since that last post... and the breath volume is no longer an issue to me. I think I was just over-analysing it and getting in over my head. I can get a bit obsessive sometimes!

    Like you Liz, I think I have a loud breath - both on the inhale & exhale, but once I realized that my breath is my breath and whether or not it was gonna affect the person on the mat next to me... that's not the point! The point is that it's my breath - my metronome/ rhythm-keeper, and I shouldn't feel self-conscious about how loud it is.

    And then once I reaffirmed that, I wasn't distracted by it anymore. Weird.


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