8.23.2011

Ujjayi Pranayama: making music on the mat

In this age of yoga for fitness and weight loss, it's all too easy to forget that this practice, at it's core, is a breathing practice.  The breath and mind are closely linked; the state of one is reflected in the other.  In yoga, we exploit this relationship, taking control of the breath, as a means to gain greater control over the mind.

Though there are many types of pranayama, or breath control practices, the breath that we use in asana is called ujjayi pranayama, a Sanskrit term loosely translated to mean "victorious breath" or "conqueror breath."  It is called so for many reasons, one being that in ujjayi, the breath is directed into the upper chest while the belly remains gently but firmly tucked with uddiyana bandha (navel lock), resulting in a proud or victorious posture.

The Dark Lord
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of ujjayi pranayama is the sound this breath produces.  It has been likened to the waves of the ocean, the roar of a steam engine, or to the mechanistic hiss of Darth Vader.  This aspirant sound is a meditation aid, used to drown out external stimuli and turn the yogi's attention to the internal world of the practice.  It has been said that the breath is the instrument of the yogi.  With ujjayi pranayama, we tune and refine the breath until the sound and rhythm of both the inhalations and exhalations are steady, slow, and resonant.

While it may take many months or even years to develop an even and sustainable practice of ujjayi breathing, it is an extremely important element of the asana practice.  Ujjayi not only assists the practitioner's mental focus, but also slows and extends the breath.  In a Vinyasa practice, in which the breath and movement are closely linked, long slow inhalations and exhalations allow the practitioner to move more slowly and with more control through the postures, building even more strength and heat in the body.

Ujjayi pranayama is initiated by the bandhas and regulated by a slight constriction of the glottis.  This constriction narrows the airway of the throat which slows the breath and creates friction, producing internal heat, or tapas, which we use to burn through destructive patterns of behavior in both body and mind.  When first developing your ujjayi pranayama, it can be useful to imagine that you are in fact breathing from the throat itself, as if there were a tiny hole in the throat through which to suck and blow air.  Concentrate on on the sensation of the breath swirling in the throat and the sound of the breath resonating against the upper palate as you slowly and steadily drink the breath in and then slowly and guardedly pour it back out.

Continue to tune your instrument until the inhalations and exhalations carry the same lovely tone.  Do not be discouraged if you at first experience tension in the throat or have trouble sounding the inhalations.  Start by sounding the exhalations only, and the inhalations will come.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Megan!
    Great writing, as usual. David Robson from Toronto recently came up with a pretty surprising article on the ujayi breath in asana:

    http://torontobodymind.ca/blogs/david/same-river

    Apparently the ujayi breath is a strictly pranayama practice and ashtangis are supposed to employ, "free breathing?" Who knew? Enjoy!

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  2. i love this blog. always full of interesting information and wonderful insight. plus you managed to draw a parallel between yoga and darth vader, which definitely deserves some bonus kudos.

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  3. Hi AshtangaYogaEcstaticAdventures - Thanks for the comment! I have heard that Sharath fairly recently tried to put the kibosh on ujjayi, but I have my suspicions it's a language barrier issue, just like when Guruji explained mula bandha as a tightening of the anus. (I think we all know there's a little more to it than that.) Personally, I can't imagine doing the asana practice without ujjayi to keep me on task.

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