The Meaning of Ujjayi Breathing

Posted by on Sep 29, 2015 in Ashtanga Yoga, Yoga Teacher Training

Ujjayi Infatuation: Falling In Love With The Breath

Ujjayi pranayamaAshtanga yoga is obsessed with breath. For Ashtangi’s, no movement on the mat is complete without a corresponding inhale or exhale, meticulously executed according to a carefully observed count. Each posture is a study of how the breath moves in the body, finding grace and strength through its effective use. We measure our time in each pose not by musical cues or a stopwatch, but by the passing of breath. Even our led practices, counted by a teacher, are infatuated with the breath, guiding practitioners through each inhalation and exhalation from the very first “ekam, inhale.” What is it about the simple act of breathing that inspires so much focus and attention?

It’s All About Energy, Prana

 The asana sequences of Ashtanga yoga aren’t structured arbitrarily, or even entirely in terms of difficulty. They’re built to work energetically, unblocking, purifying and strengthening the subtle systems of the body. Yogic anatomy believes in an energetic body that exists alongside, but distinct from, the physical body. Asana practice, along with its physical effects, works on this deeper, subtler, energetic level.

This life-force energy is referred to as prana, and yoga practitioners see it everywhere and in everything. Sort of. Unfortunately, most of us can’t “see” prana, or even have direct experience of it, especially early on in our practice. To access it, then, we need an entry point. That entry point is the breath.

All cultures speak of the connection between breath and spirit. In fact, the word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, or breath. The Greeks also used their word for breath, pneuma, in religious contexts to mean “spirit” or “soul.” Biblical Hebrew and Arabic have similar etymological parallels. Throughout the ancient world, it was agreed; breath and spirit are deeply intertwined.

The Victorious Breath

PranaIn Ashtanga yoga practice, we use a special breath to access this connection. This breathing technique goes by many names. It is often referred to as ujjayi, or victorious, breath (not to be confused with the more formalized breathing exercise of ujjayi pranayama).   Many Western teachers describe it as “ocean’s breath,” after its wave-like sound. Sharath Jois, son of Ashtanga Yoga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, has in recent years taken to describing it simply as “breathing with sound.” Whatever word you use for it, this breath is a vital, fundamental part of Ashtanga’s asana practice.

To cultivate this ujjayi breath, take a deep inhale, and then exhale out of your mouth, making a “HHHAAA” sound as you do so. After repeating this a few times, gently close your lips, cultivating the same sound as you breath through the nose. The resulting sound should be reminiscent of waves crashing rhythmically on the shore.

As you breathe, pay close attention to the quality of the ujjayi breath. Balance in all things is key. Try to make both sides of the breath equal in length, spending the same amount of time in the inhale as the exhale. Strive for a breath that is full without being strained, finding a balance of effort and ease. The state of the breath and the state of the mind are inextricably intertwined. Cultivate the steadiness in your breath that you’re seeking for your mind.

Practice, Practice, Practice

yoga pacticeAs with all things in yoga, the breath will develop with practice. Over the days, months, and years of your practice, your relationship with the ujjayi breath will continuously develop and evolve. All you have to do for this is pay attention.

Notice the ways the breath works in the body as you move through each asana. As you develop your awareness of bandhas, pay attention to how they work alongside the breath. Feel the centering effect of your first focused breaths each time you step on the mat, returning to it when your mind becomes distracted. Revel in the rising heat the breathing builds from the inside out. Watch the waves of the breath, noticing how they change in quality as you move through your practice, quickening and slowing with the different phases of the sequence.

Get obsessed with the ujjayi breath. Become intimate friends. Fall in love with it.  Develop a beautiful relationship with rhythmic respiration. Before you know it, you’ll be just as infatuated with breathing as Ashtanga Yoga.

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