The breath is of paramount importance during all types of yogasana practices & the general rule is that you should breathe in & out of the nostrils with the mouth closed. In Sanskrit the word for breath & spirit is prana, thus we literally breathe in life. The breath is the source of vitality; it is the spirit moving in the body. In yoga we learn to harness the breath to maximise its potential. The breath is the precious fuel that feeds Agni (the internal fire) giving us the energy we need to survive.
During Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice a special type of yogic breathing is employed which is called ujjayi or victorious breath. Here we breathe in & out of the nose but the breath is actually drawn directly from the throat. If you draw the breath from the nostrils it will sound as if you have a bad head cold. If you draw the breath from the throat it should sound like waves surging up a pebbly beach or wind in the trees or the soft hiss of a cobra snake or even darth vader from star wars (this last one is debatable).
The effect of ujjayi is to enrich prana. Ashtanga is an oftentimes physically demanding practise. When you move to the rhythm of the breath as when you perform Vinyasa the muscles demand a constant supply of oxygen & to allow this the airflow needs to increase. Breathing directly from the back of the throat enables this extra demand to be met.
The sound that ujjayi breath creates also helps to keep the mind focused. As the mind inevitably wanders, this soft sibilant sound acts like a mantra bringing you back home away from the chattering mind. This breath serves as a link between body & mind. It calms us & allows the practise to flow in a graceful dance. If we learn to listen to the breath it becomes a strong indicator of the quality of our practise. Too much effort & it will sound forced. Too little emphasis & its sound will fade behind our streaming thoughts. If we keep our focus on the breath our practice becomes a meditation in motion.
When we draw the breath directly from the back of the throat the airflow is enhanced & regulated by the muscles around the glottis. The friction of the air through the glottis warms the air before entering the lungs & produces the comforting ujjayi sound. To perform ujjayi correctly the breath must be free i.e. the glottis must be kept open all the time during the inhalation/exhalation cycle of the breath. If you allow the glottis to close you are in effect holding your breath, energy flow halts, muscles are starved of oxygen & tighten up & your practice will become stilted & lifeless.
To get the technique of ujjayi breathing right takes some practice especially if you have previously practiced other types of yoga where ujjayi is not generally performed but hang in there it is a tool which will transform your practise & eventually it will become totally spontaneous.
The following are some tips that should help:
1. Smile gently while breathing to allow the glottis to open & the air to swirl in the back of the throat.
2. Sit in any comfortable cross-legged position. Sit up straight. Inhale through the nose & exhale through the mouth making a soft whispering “Hhhaaa” sound. Feel the air move in the back of the throat. Take a few breaths like this.
Then half way through an exhale, close your mouth & let the air continue exiting through the nose. Take a few breaths like this.
Gently smile when you next inhale & create the same sound as you previously did on the exhale.
3. To stop sniffing through the nose & help draw air directly from the throat dilate your nostrils. To do this place the balls of your index & middle fingers on your upper cheeks. Gently stretch the skin either side of the bridge of your nose to allow nostrils to flare & direct your attention & breathe from the back of your throat.
4. Lie in savasana .focus on your natural breathing process & feel the air passing down your windpipe. Lightly contract the area at the back of your throat as you do when you swallow. Inhale & exhale through the nose, making each breath long, deep & regular. Concentrate on the sound. Progressively work your way up to 10 minutes.
5. Practise as in 4. but fold the tongue back so the tip presses the back of the soft palate in the roof of the mouth.
6. As you inhale say “saaaa” to yourself & as you exhale say “haaaa”. Keep breaths equal, smooth & relaxed.
7. Notice your mind wandering as you practise breathing & keep bringing it back to your breath.
8. Practice ujjayi any time you like – when you go for a walk, climb the stairs or as part of a relaxation routine.
If you are prone to making grunting noises when you practice ujjayi this means the glottis has locked closed usually at the beginning of the inhalation or at the end of the exhalation. If this happens refocus your attention on keeping the glottis open.
Once you have mastered basic ujjayi breath the next step is to regulate the length of each breath. Generally our inhalations & exhalations are different lengths. Now we need to look for sama which is the equalisation of length & intensity of the inhalation & exhalation which we employ during Asanas & some vinyasa transitions. Ojai now evolves to the inner stretching of the breath. Also we need to stretch certain phases of the breath when performing some vinyasa breath/movement transitions, when the length of the transition requires a longer inhalation e.g. moving from down dog to warrior A in sun salute B or when the length of the transition requires a longer exhalation e.g. moving from warrior A to chaturanga in sun salute B. The effect of stretching the breath in turn helps stretch the body.
Finally ujjayi breath is one of the three most fundamental techniques of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga along with bandhas (locks) & drishti (gaze). When these three are mastered simultaneously the state of tristana occurs which will transform your practise into a true moving meditation.