Yoga Principles

Ujjayi Breathing

We go on breathing whether we pay attention to it or not, so it may seem as though there wouldn't be a need for practicing different ways of breathing. But given that oxygen is kind of important for life and respiration is the process we use to get all that oxygen into our cells, maybe taking a closer look at how we breathe isn't a waste of time.

Breathe

There is a laundry list of psychological and physiological benefits of properly done deep breathing.  Deep breathing helps you to de-stress and boosts your cardiovascular endurance through a similar mechanism.  Proper breathing activates your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the portion of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and digestion. Shallow breathing activates your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the system responsible for your “flight or fight” response. Without getting too deep into these nervous systems, let’s just say that stimulation of the PNS promotes recovery and energy conservation, while stimulation of the SNS promotes more stress.

 

Working with your breath can teach you a lot about how you engage with the world.  Proper breathing is also critical during stretching and weight training. Proper breathing allows your body to move efficiently and supports the core in functioning optimally.  In fact, breathing mechanics and bracing mechanics are intimately connected.  If a client does not breathe well, they don’t brace well either.  Linking breath and movement is one of the pillars of athleticism and as Nike says “If You Have A Body, You're An Athlete”.  

 

Breath is also a great indicator of how hard you are working.  Before there were smartwatches, there was listening to your body. Breath is the original feedback device. If you pay attention to it, it will tell you if you’re working hard enough or too hard. It will also give you a sense of how relaxed you are and the effort you are putting into your practice.  That’s why runners have a “talk test”.  You should always be able to talk while running to indicate a “moderate effort”. I will often tell my yoga students.  “If you can’t breathe in a pose or position, you don’t own that position.  Breath lets you know when you are overdoing it when you are going past your ability to maintain good form and function.  Breath lets you balance the effort with ease.  It gives you the ability to produce and maintain the optimal amount of tension for a particular activity; not too much or too little.

 

In yoga, the practice of breath control is called Pranayama.  Pranayama is breathing practice.  In our yoga practice, we seek to integrate our breathing with our movement so that we can stay relaxed and centered in the present moment.  The simplest of all relaxation strategies is slow diaphragmatic breathing.

 

Ujjayi (ooh-JAI-yee) breath or “victorious breath”, is the most common type of breathing exercise we do in yoga.  Ujjayi is a specific type of pranayama and has many benefits.
 

Benefits

  • Lengthens your breath

  • Strengthens your lungs and diaphragm  

  • Begins to warm your body

  • Gives you something to focus on  

  • Can help you practice yoga in a safe manner

  • Can bring you into the present moment

  • Helps to create stability in the body, which is why people say it can “tone and tighten”

  • Stimulates your vagus nerve and can calm anxiety

 

You learn breathing like anything else, a little at a time.  You build it just like you do strength and flexibility. 

 

Ujjayi accurately sounds like the ocean and is sometimes referred to as ocean breath.  I sometimes call it Darth Vader breath but that may be misleading as Vader wore a life support system that had a respirator and a microphone (we are big Star Wars nerds in our family).

You can learn it by making the gentle sound of the ocean, first with your mouth open and then closed. I was taught to inhale as if yawning and exhaling as if fogging a mirror.  Start with mouth open then try it with your lips closed.  You can feel the throat open and tighten and the diaphragm working once you get the hang of it.  People often mistake the inhale with sniffing, emphasizing the nostrils, Ujjayi’s focus is the center of the throat.

 

The Basics of Ujjayi:

  1. Try to make the sound of the ocean first with your mouth open, then closed.  

  2. Keep the breath and sound even going both ways—on the inhale and exhale.  

  3. Put your hands over your ears to hear your breath better.


 

How to:

  • Take the palm of your hand up to your mouth. Imagine your hand is a mirror and that you are going to “fog” it up with your breath with your mouth open. When you do this, it produces a clean “hollow” sound kind of like “haaaaaaaaaaa.” It feels warm against your skin.

  • The tricky part is making the same sound on the inhale. You can hold up a hand in front of your mouth, and another at the back of your neck. Two mirrors. Try to fog them both up—the exhale fogs up the front mirror, the inhale the back.  Almost like yawning.

  • Once you are adept at fogging up the mirrors, create the same sound and sensation—by breathing through your nose only.  This may seem weird but it all clicked for me when I closed my lips and tried to recreate it through the nose only.  I really felt my diaphragm working for the first time!

  • Breathe in a balanced manner through the nose and out through the nose. The inhale and exhale are equal, and the quality of sound is even.

  • Breathing in this way causes a slight constriction of the throat.

Try paying attention to your breath, not only in your yoga practice but also while lifting or swinging a bell.  And remember to be patient with yourself as it is called a practice for a reason.