Ujjayi Breath: Peace or Preoccupation?

yoga breathing
Photo by arianne

Have you ever been on the mat and the person next to you sounds like they’re at the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby? It’s ujjayi breath with the volume turned up. And it can be a little annoying to those of us who take a slightly different view of how this ancient pranayama (breathing exercise) should be practiced.

Pranayama is one of the foundational practices of hatha yoga. It’s the absorption of prana, or the life force, into the body and mind. And just like asana (physical poses), there are many different forms of pranayama one can practice.

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For most of us, our first introduction to pranayama after simple breath awareness is ujjayi. Ujjayi is a diaphragmatic breath where the inhalation and exhalation are long, deep and complete, and move through the nose. Ujjayi is often translated from Sanskrit to mean “victorious breath,” while others describe it as an “ocean breath,” named from the “ha” or wave-like sound created by the air moving through your glottis, or vocal chords.

How you get your vocal chords to cooperate is another story.

Many instructors recommend a slight constricting of the throat which works for some, but the idea of that makes me uneasy. I prefer to think of it as “narrowing” the glottis or vocal chords. Better yet, I like to visualize the breath moving through the vocal chords with each round of inhalations and exhalations. I still get a sound, but it’s not especially loud, and it has the same effect: anchoring my attention to my breath. The idea is to stay connected with ujjayi for the duration of your yoga practice.

No matter what, learning ujjayi takes lots of practice, on and off the mat. And depending on the teacher or class, different yoga practices dictate how loud the breath sounds, and how it’s used.

In flow or power yoga classes, you may have heard your instructor say something along the lines of “If your neighbor on the mat can’t hear you breathing, you’re not doing ujjayi!” Or “Use your ujjayi breath to build heat and stamina.” I had one teacher proclaim, “Ancient yogis were said to be able to melt snow with their ujjayi breath!”

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It’s almost as if ujjayi’s “victorious breath” has become synonymous with being victorious on the mat with the decibels of your breathing. In fact, I used to think those yogis with the loudest breath must be the most advanced practitioners. I have to admit I was a little envious. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make the “ha” sound above a whisper without feeling like I was straining or forcing something to happen. Forget about balancing poses and asana—I was a failure at just breathing!

I’ve come to learn that no matter how loud or soft, ujjayi is a means to an end: a helpful way to keep the mind and body focused. My “ha” sound may be only audible to me, but I feel an energy and calmness when utilizing this technique that is specific to my ujjayi breath. And now, if I find myself next to someone on the mat whose ujjayi volume is on high, it doesn’t rattle me.

And if I’m still having trouble focusing in on my own breath and practice, I remind myself of one of my favorite sutras, 1.12-1.16: Practice and Non-Attachment, or what I think of as discipline and surrender. It’s a good way to approach life, on and off the mat, even if your neighbor is Darth Vader.

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I’d love to know your thoughts on practicing ujjayi. Send us your stories.

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