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  • Writer's pictureRon Bushner

Yoga in the time of pandemic

Virtual classes are meeting our needs

I miss teaching and taking yoga classes in the studio! I never thought of it as socializing but that was back in the days before “social distancing” taught me how much I was taking for granted. I knew that—whether I was a student or teacher—the main point of a yoga class was for us to have the experience of turning inward and finding the calm that is always there. I did not know how much I would miss sharing that experience in the physical presence of fellow humans.

I have been both teaching and taking yoga classes “virtually” and I am finding that the virtual experience works too. The experience has evolved. At first, even though the yoga was still doing its job of calming us, I missed the presence of others greatly. Now, I am noticing that a sense of community, though it seemed attenuated at first, is growing. I love seeing the same people in every class, knowing that they are well and caring for themselves and that we are all committed to our yoga and to each other.

Now is a good time to compliment classes with a home practice

There is another aspect of yoga that is a good fit for our involuntarily simplified lifestyles: a home practice. It compliments and supports yoga classes, virtual or otherwise. A home practice is yoga that you do every day because you choose to do it. It is like any other daily routine—brushing your teeth, showering, having a family dinner at a designated hour. In a home practice you devote some time to be alone with yourself and do a practice of yoga that aligns your body and quiets your mind. It does not have to be a long practice. It is much more important to do it every day.

Some of my students has found the value in doing this, but most yoga students everywhere think of yoga as something you only do in a class and then look forward to the next class. Most do not see yoga as something that we can be responsible for and choose to make a part of our lives. If you are one of those students (or if you have a home practice and are looking for something to add), I recommend that you consider doing Ujjayi.

A home practice is not a burden. Practicing Ujjayi for 10 minutes a day will change your life.

Ujjayi breathing is an especially effective home practice

Ujjayi is a breathing practice that traces back many centuries. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which dates from the 15th century, is a comprehensive encyclopedia of yoga asanas, pranayama, mudras, and other yoga practices. In verses 2:51-53 the Pradipika describes Ujjayi:

“Closing the mouth, inhale with control and concentration through the nose so that the breath is felt from the throat to the heart and produces a sonorous sound… It can be done while moving, standing, sitting, or walking…”.

One of the reasons we practice yoga is so that we can refine the tools that calm us and give us the mental space to make better choices in what actions we take in our lives. We can call on a few Ujjayi breaths (whether we are sitting, standing, walking, or moving in some other way) to find our way to a clearer, calmer mind that will improve our chances of taking right actions.

How to do Ujjayi and why it is such an effective yoga practice

You make the “sonorous sound” by narrowing your throat passageway so that as the air moves in and out through your throat it makes a whispering sound. You hear this sound when you blow on your sunglasses to fog them before you clean them. In Ujjayi, you have closed lips and you are breathing in and out through your nose, but the sound is coming from your throat, down by your vocal cords. Some call Ujjayi Ocean Breathing. It is a soft sound that only you can hear.

You listen to the sound of your breath. By listening, you can tell how fast you are breathing, if your breath is smooth or rough, whether it is deep or shallow, how long, or short it is. You smooth out your breath, so it is steady and smooth; so that the steady, smooth sound is the same at the beginning, middle and end of the inhale and the beginning, middle and end of the exhale. Your exhale sounds the same as your inhale.

In Ujjayi, the sound of the breath gives your mind a single focus and, like in other meditative practices, this single focus calms the mind; it quiets the noise in our minds that is present in our everyday lives when we are “alert” and keeping our senses open to everything around us.

Besides this effect on the mind, Ujjayi has dramatic effects on the body. The Vagus nerve controls our vocal cords and is a central component of the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The PNS is responsible for keeping our bodies in homeostasis, in balance. The vibration of our vocal cords that produces the sonorous sound stimulates the Vagus nerve and the PNS. Ujjayi slows our heart rate, lowers our blood pressure, aids our digestion, and balances our nervous system. Ujjayi is an antidote for anxiety.

In addition to the effects on the nervous system, Ujjayi benefits the cardiovascular system. The narrowing of the throat passageway pressurizes the air moving in and out through our lungs. Just as you can reach a stream of water into the corners of your garden by putting your thumb over the hose, the narrowed throat passageway produces a stream of air that reaches deeper into the lungs. There is a greater blood supply deeper in the lungs and the body accomplishes the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide more efficiently. You clear out stale air from your lungs, your whole body really, in the same way you would on long run but you can do it slowly and quietly so that your body can relax and release its tension.

How Svaroopa® Yoga practices Ujjayi

The Ujjayi practice in Svaroopa® yoga is especially effective, both in calming the body and mind and in learning deeply how to do Ujjayi so that you can use it anytime, anywhere.

Lie on your back in Shavasana. Your lower legs rest on a chair, ottoman, bed, or stack of blankets. Prop your head with a blanket, pillow, or towel so that your forehead and chin are level with the ground. This propping is only under the head, not the neck or shoulders so that the tension in your neck is free to release as you relax into the practice. Your shoulder blades are flat on the floor, your arms are alongside your body with palms turned up or your hands are resting on your belly near your navel. The floor and the propping under your head and legs are supporting your body so that you can rest comfortably without needing to engage any muscular effort to hold yourself.

In this luxurious position, you do your Ujjayi breathing and can explore all of the nuances of your breath, calming your nervous system, restoring your body with its life force.

Find 10 minutes in your day, every day, for a week and practice Ujjayi. You will be surprised at how much there is to learn about your breath, your body, your mind, and, most importantly, your Self.

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