Thursday, March 10, 2011

Breath of the day - Ujjayi (aka: MY FAVE, y'all!)

ocean tree at sunrise

I love Ujjayi pranayam. I seriously, seriously, seriously LOVE IT. Love. Can I make myself more clear? I LOVE IT. (My niece often tells me I should put a tux on my iPhone and marry it. Ouch. I would, however, consider putting a tux on Ujjayi pranayam and marrying it. Really. Let's work on that.)

Ujjayi breath is also known as the ocean sounding breath or the Darth Vader breath. My official Kripalu School of Yoga 200-hour Teacher Training Manual says it is "a meditative and soothing Pranayama that may be used when doing postures."

Thanks, manual.

Ujjayi is performed by taking long, slow breaths while slightly contracting the back of the throat - the area around the glottis. The slight muscular contraction creates a hissing sound in the back of the throat that some people think sounds like the waves of the ocean. It doesn't sound like the ocean to me, but it IS soothing and calming, ocean sounding or not. =)

My love for Ujjayi well-stated, allow me to also confess: I didn't understand this breath until I went to yoga school. Yep. Now everyone (who reads this blog) knows my dirty little secret. I was accepted into yoga school without a firm grasp on one of the most basic breathing techniques in yoga. (I admit shit like this hoping that it is disarming or makes yoga seem more accessible, when really I'm probably just making an ass of myself and admitting too much, right? Oh well.) I had the exhale figured out - I could find that constriction in the back of my throat and make the sound on the EXHALE, but on the inhale? No way. Now it is SO NATURAL for me that it's almost difficult for me to remember not being able to DO Ujjayi. It really is a hard breath to teach, and a hard breath to understand (in my opinion, anyway) but once it clicks - BAM - a whole new level of yoga opens up. I have found Ujjayi to be the key to sustaining difficult postures. In fact, Ujjayi is EXACTLY the means of BREATHING THROUGH just about anything, but especially a yoga practice. =)

I usually teach Ujjayi by having my students imagine they are fogging up a mirror as they exhale through an open mouth, asking them to try and feel that constriction in the very back of the throat. Another way of doing this is by exhaling the word home, although I don't find that as helpful. Once you can make the sound with the mouth open, try keeping the visualization of fogging up a mirror with the mouth closed. It's kind of like this openness in the mouth area while the back of the throat closes slightly. I feel like the sound is right in the middle of my head. The next step is imagining there was a hole in the back of your neck and you could INHALE and fog up a mirror behind you. (Typing that out, I realize that it sounds incredibly unpleasant, really. Hmm.) I think this is the harder part. In can help to imagine you are about to snore, or make a piggy sound (did I really just say that?) to understand where the constriction is.

So, eventually, you are inhaling and exhaling with a closed mouth while constricting the back of the throat slightly so that you hear a hissing sound in the ears. Once you get it, you get it. But it takes practice.

The next step is allowing your attention and awareness to become completely absorbed by this sound. And remember, the point is long, slow, deep breathes in - belly, ribcage, upper chest - long, slow deep breathes out - upper chest, ribcage, belly. The constriction naturally slows down the breath because less air can come in. This is good! Slow down, people!The other thing I've become aware of is that most people try to inhale before they are REALLY DONE exhaling. (Always in such a hurry to get to the next thing, aren't we?) So use the slow pace of Ujjayi to focus on exhaling COMPLETELY before inhaling. Set a timer for ten minutes (or five, if ten sounds completely overwhelming), close your eyes and practice Ujjayi. Focus just on the sound of the breath as you inhale and exhale. Allow distractions to melt away - the ever-clamoring mind to simply be a reminder to come back to the breath, no matter what to-do list it tries to start writing for you, no matter what judgment it passes for you taking a few minutes to breath. Just do it. (Thank you, Nike).

Okay, okay - you want reasons to do it. How about the fact that practicing Ujjayi breath:
*calms the mind
* provides a complete exchange of air in the lungs
*oxygenates the blood 600% more than your normal, shallow, unconscious breathing
*releases tension in the chest and abdomen
*strengthens the breathing muscles, as pulling the air thought a contracted glottis takes more effort
*facilitates a deeper experience of yoga postures and increases holding time
*generates introversion of the mind
*increases concentration
*increases breath-control

(This list brought to you by the aforementioned manual, but I back said manual up. I've experienced all of these via practicing Ujjayi!!)

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts, experiences and opinions!


(photo credit: bettina n)


  1. Loving these posts, Hilary!

    I know this is sort of asking you to work on vacation, but have you ever considered offering a yoga class during reunion weekend? I'm sure the alumni office folks would be all over it...

  2. I felt like I was getting it, but then it seems a lot harder to do while holding a difficult pose. But then, I didn't practice that much (yet!) so I guess I can't expect Ujjayi to give a lot back to me yet.

    Alison, the same thing came up on Facebook and Hilary agreed. Now we have lobby for *daily* yoga sessions during reunion... :)

  3. Ha! I'm so flattered. I'm teaching at Kenyon on the Friday and Saturday of reunion at 9:15am (I *think*) in the KAC somewhere!!!!

  4. (We'll twist all of that alcohol and other over-indulgences (mmm, VI) right on out!! =)