Ujjayi Breathing: Part One


Hello everyone and thank you all for checking out my blogs! I really appreciate your positive feedback and hope that you continue to learn and get inspired from them. I encourage you to respond to these posts with comments and/or questions; let me know things that have helped you in your practice or vexed you or turned you on. This week I’m returning to fundamentals and discussing the breath in practice. Enjoy! Hari Om, David. (click on picture to enlarge).

There is a layering of complexity that happens in the development of Yoga practice. In order to progress without getting overwhelmed or stagnant, it is important to consistently identify and work at the level of layering that harmonizes with where you are. It can take several years to develop a strong Yoga practice and also takes a long, patient, highly observant study to understand and work with the depths of the breathing system that forms Ashtanga Yoga. Not because the breath work is difficult; breathing in sync with each asana position comes easily enough if you apply your self. In fact each technique used in the practice starts very simple. For example when you begin practicing, you get out your mat and start with sun salutation A. You learn each of the nine positions and whether to inhale or exhale when moving through them. If you practice Ashtanga, daily you work with this same beginning whether you are just starting or you’ve just completed your 40th consecutive year. When Guruji said: “Vinyasa means breathing and movement system,” he summed up what to focus on in practice no matter what level you are at. To establish the link between movement and breathing is to comprehend practice. And yet consider how formidable an endeavor it is to learn to travel with the breath, consider what it takes to bring your self into a consistent flowing awareness of the vastness of mind, the dynamic range of mental turnings thru movement and posture. It’s a humorous paradox that the person who starts on day one works at the exactly same thing as the person who has been working for decades. Yet due to the complex nature of the subject, more and more layers are revealed as you return each day and renew your focus. Thus basic practice and comprehending breath are both utterly simple and virtually impossible at the same time!

Quotes from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) about breathing:

…”the breath (can be) brought under control, little by little, by the strength of one’s practice, difficult though this is, it is possible”

“Focusing the mind in a single direction is extremely important. To enable it to stay fixed and in place, Pranayama is essential.”

“Through the practice of Pranayama the mind becomes trained in a single direction and follows the movements of the breath.”

“Vinyasa means “breathing and movement system.”

Guruji divided the breath into two categories: ‘free breathing’ and ‘stiff breathing’. At times when he would begin an adjustment on me, I would start to freak out and tighten up. My face would become distorted and I would start to use the ‘bull in a china shop’ version of ujjayi. He would say: ‘Free breathing you do, No stiff breathing.’ As he moved forward with the adjustment there was no choice but to let go, free the breath and relax into the depths of the position. A huge part of working with breath is to soften and become receptive to the ebb and flow rhythm as if you are being extended an invitation move with the flow of the breath’s tidal rhythm. The torso also needs to soften and become receptive to the free flow of breath. As you focus on breath, the lungs, ribs, diaphragm, organs, muscles within the abdomen and pelvis all need to expand and contract easily like sea plants on the ocean floor that are rooted and yet sway back and forth with the wave patterns.

Ujjayi means upward, expansive and victorious. Guruji called Ujjayi ‘breathing with sound’. The sound is produced by partially closing the space between the vocal folds (the glottis). The constriction in the throat happens in the notch between the collarbones. One way to experience it is, you can imagine that the breath comes in through a hole in the throat, not the nose or mouth, like a far gone smoker who has to take in smoke through a hole in this area. Alternately you can imagine that Prana is a thick nectar milkshake and that you have to pull on the straw to get the nectar. (To try this open the lips slightly and draw in breath in a thin steady stream). As you practice, cultivate a lazy, wandering yet steady sound that carries and resonates like the long lasting tone when you strike a bell. When you create a soulful tonal quality, the inner ears become receptive and you feel invited in to listen to and follow the sound. Be present, enjoy and allow your self to explore the breath’s sound and rhythm. Free flowing breath can heal ailments throughout the mind and body. The sound of the breath can be further classified. The out breath is aspirant and associated with the syllable ha or ham. The in breath is sibilant and associated with the syllable sa or so. When you breath the exhalation produces the sound ‘ham’ and the inhalation produces the sound sa. Hamsa, Hamsa, (or also so’ham so’ham) repeats as you breath. Tuning into these sounds enables you to better find your own unique, soulful patterns of movement that lead to centered and receptive asana. Also using the syllables ham and sa while breathing in practice amplifies your ujjayi, the breath emerges from the background into the foreground, enabling you to tether the mind to the breath and meditation commences.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said ‘Pranayama means taking in the subtle power of the vital wind’. Pranayama (Prana=life force, ayama=not restrained) means to work with breath in such a way that you free your life force and access your subtle power. The vital wind refers to the five divisions of Prana inside the body called Vayu (see picture). Prana Vayu and Apana Vayu are the two prominent Vayu’s whose patterns are directly involved in the cycle of the breath. Apana Vayu governs the region of the torso from navel to the pelvic floor which includes the lower abdomen and the entire pelvic basin. Linked with the outbreath, the Apanic pattern is a downward, cohesive, centripetal force that has rooting and grounding propensities. Apana is the source of a woman pushing a baby down and out of her womb. Apana is the force in the free fall of water in a tall waterfall. By tuning into the pattern of Apana Vayu, you are more connected to the earth, better able to create grounded, robust, energetically alive movement. You are more apt to be mentally agile and stubbornly ride the often bucking, wily, mischievous and potentially harmful mind.

Prana Vayu governs the region of the torso from the diaphragm to the collarbones and includes the lungs, ribcage, and the entire upper torso. Linked with the in breath, the Pranic pattern is an upward, expansive, centrifugal, opening pattern. You can see Pranic force in play in the funnel of a whirling cyclone, or in the blossoming and flowering of plants as they reach expansively upwards towards sunlight. Working with the Pranic pattern during inhalation elongates the spine and encourages spaciousness and receptivity within the torso. Developing awareness of Prana Vayu allows you to open to receiving the gift of shakti, life force that is carried on the breath. If these concepts are new to you, initially I suggest you take time to get to know each of these patterns separately. Tune into either the in or out breath and see if you can tap the potent forces of the patterns of Prana and Apana Vayu’s. You can work with the imagery when you are practicing and at other times. Additionally, I’ve included two short informal video exercises that work with the principles presented above.

Ashtanga Foundations: Ujayii Part One from David Garrigues on Vimeo.

Ashtanga Foundations: Ujayii Part One Exercise from David Garrigues on Vimeo.

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4 Responses to Ujjayi Breathing: Part One

  1. Serena says:

    Thank you for this great post! Your explanation made many things very clear for me and the practice exercise was awesome!

  2. therese says:

    David- thank you for the weekly blogs. they are interesting, educational and really help in understanding ashtanga practice. Trying to remember and add to my practice is an exercise itself. Your dedication is appreciated.

  3. jphubbard says:

    Hi David, Thank you for the detailed description on ujjayi breathing. The 'hole in the throat' visual was especially helpful to me and I've been focusing on that technique this past week in my practice. This blog is wonderful and so informative! It really adds a new dimension to my study of yoga. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Julie

  4. Anonymous says:

    david: the hole in the throat was really helpful to me as well. thank you.
    i am having issues with the out breath….. the " hole in the throat"visual is not helping my out breath. i feel like my in breath is strong,good, nice sounding but my out breath wastes all my good in breath….? i have been trying to'" blow out"or "blow down" through the straw to no avail …. acutally it is giving me a back pain.! any help would be appreciated.

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