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Ujjayi Breathing

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.
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