Why do we use Ujjayi breath?

Most new yoga students are surprised by how much I talk about the breath during class. In fact, I probably give more directions for your breath than your body in a typical group class.

Our ability to control our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have in yoga practice. Consider the vital role that breath plays in our body--its influence is everywhere! 

What's very cool about yoga is that a long time ago, people realized they could change how they feel and how their minds and bodies work by changing their breathing patterns. Notice your breath as you imagine being surprised, excited, relaxed, angry or sad. It changes a lot.

One of the things we might do in yoga is breathe in a relaxed way, and that way of breathing persuades the other parts of your system that you are relaxed. And then you really are relaxed.

It's a little more complicated than that, and we spend a lot of time talking about and practicing this stuff in teacher training, but that's the gist of how it works.

There is a great deal of utility in manipulating the breath if you know what you're doing. And learning something like ujjayi breath is a perfect start to yoga breathing practices.

First, here's a little tutorial on how to do ujjayi breath:

  1. Breathe in through your nose, and as you exhale, whisper "ahhhhhh" a few times.
  2. As you make the whisper sound, listen to it. See how smooth you can make the sound and see if it can last the entire length of your exhale.
  3. Then, close your mouth and see if you can still make the same whisper sound as you breathe out through your nose.

That's really all there is to it. You may also be able to add the whisper sound to the inhale right away, but in my experience, the inhale is a bit trickier to work with for new students. I suggest sticking to exhale only for a week or so and add the inhale as it becomes easy.

If you prefer to listen and practice, I have a recording all about ujjayi breath here.

Admittedly, spending a lot of time thinking about your breath and making a sound with it is strange at first. But there are three very useful things that ujjayi breath brings to your yoga practice:

1. Makes the breath more substantial

Creating a noise gives your breath a sound and a feeling that makes it easier to notice and control. Something as subtle as air becomes more tangible, and it's more satisfying to work with and focus on, especially for beginning students.

The sound and sensation also give students something to focus on. You can't tell someone to clear their mind and expect them to successfully keep their mind empty and still. Our minds don't work that way. They need something to do. And focusing on creating and listening to a sound in the breath is a nice little challenge to keep the mind engaged.

As the student advances, his breath grows more soft and subtle, so that even ujjayi breath is barely audible.

2. Provides feedback

One of primary elements of ujjayi breath is that the sound or sensation created should become entirely smooth and require almost no effort.

You'll notice in the beginning that the volume may change throughout the length of your exhale, or the breath may sputter or break up a bit. But as you become more proficient, you'll be able to maintain a very smooth sound even during movement and in more challenging breathing practices.

A break or unevenness in the breath is an indication that you are working beyond the level of effort that's useful or desirable in yoga. Most of the systems we are working with in yoga are highly refined, and they don't welcome forceful disruptions. Listening to the breath and staying at a level where the breath is smooth keeps your yoga practice healthy and effective.

3. Lengthens the breath

To create the whisper-like sound in your breath, your throat needs to gently constrict a bit. And this constriction slows the stream of air that passes through, in the same way that a drink flows more slowly through a narrow straw than through a wide one.

I won't spend a lot of time on it here, but one of the main ways that we influence the breath in yoga is by using different ratios for the inhale and exhale.

A inhale that is longer than the exhale is excitatory, and can produce anxiety, so I don't use it in yoga class.

An exhale that is longer than the inhale, on the other hand, tends to have a very relaxing influence. I use that one a lot.

Creating the sound with ujjayi breath gives students the ability to more precisely control the stream of air as it leaves or enters. So if I ask them to breathe in for 6 counts and out for 12, they have more capability of controlling the breath.

 

There you have it: three very good reasons to practice ujjayi breath.

If you're curious, the word ujjayi is in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and comes from the root "ud," which means up. The entire word means something like "one who is moving up," and in the case of yoga studies, one who is advancing or becoming enlightened. You may have heard your teacher refer to ujjayi breath as victorious breath or ocean breath as well. We yogis are quite fond of this tool and give it many names!

Enjoy your breathing! As I always say (not really, but perhaps I should), "Breathing every day keeps the doctor away!"