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Yoga & Breath – Ujjayi Breathing

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Now that you have some familiarity with your natural breathing we can take another step forward into Ujjayi (u-jay-ee) breathing. The core idea with Ujjayi basic is to create a mechanism by which you can control and manipulate the structure of your own breathing. You can think of Ujjayi technique as a valve in the throat which regulates the flow of breath. Without using the valve your breath flows freely within the fully capacity permitted by your phyiscality – the size of your windpipe. In Ujjayi breathing we use musculature to narrow that pipe down so that the passage of air is more constricted – we close the valve a bit. How much we close it effects the flow of breath.

How to do it? For some people it’s immediately available others require a little practice (a few attentive minutes will usually do the job) to find it. If you have ever cleaned your glasses or sunglasses using the humidity of your breath – then you know how to do it. When you hold the glasses up to your mouth and humidify them – you constrict your throat – you can tell that because you can hear a hissing sound. This is the valve we are looking to control.

To try Ujjayi breathing I would suggest you:

  1. find yourself a comfortable seated position – this can be on the floor or on a chair. You should be sitting alert, your back held upright and your eyes can be closed.
  2. Try a few times the “cleaning your glasses” technique – to get a sense of throat control. Do you notice the hissing sound? You should be able to clearly recognize the hissing sound.
  3. When you have a clear sensation of the hissing sound – purse your lips so that you are breathing in and out through your nostrils and try again. The hissing should still come from the throat. Be careful not to cheat yourself by forcing air out through your nostrils – which can create a similar sound. That is not what you are looking for. The hissing should come from the throat.
  4. Then check and make sure that your breathing is not forceful – that the Ujjayi breathing is calm and relaxed. It does not require fast or forced air-flow.
  5. The valve is a delicate control, and only small muscles in your throat are required to generate it. Check and see that other muscles in the body haven’t been recruited for the job. Have a look at your shoulders, neck, legs, feet, toes & fingers. If you find any unnecessary tensions – try to release them.

Now that you have your basic Ujjayi breathing I invite you to revisit the exercise you did in observing your natural breathing. Now you will do  it twice:

  1. Observing your natural breathing.
  2. Then observing your ujjayi breathing. I would also suggest that at first you don’t overdo the Ujjayi – it can take some getting used to. A series of 12 breaths should be a good start.
  3. Try to make a mental note of the differences between the natural breath and the ujjayi breath.
  4. If you find that you can contain 12 breaths peacefully (in your body, breath and mind) you may then start from the beginning and do this exercise another time from the beginning (natural breathing and then Ujjayi breathing).

As you practice this excercise – you should find your Ujjayi becoming steady and peaceful. The sound should be audible but not too loud. The sound should also be steady – in both volume and quality. The transitions between the inhale and exhale should be quiet and soft.

If you find that your exhale begins or ends with an “ooomph” – then you are probably pushing the inhale too hard. If you find that your inhale begins or ends  with an “ooomph” then you are pushing your exhale to much. There is a subtle Yoga lesson hiding in here – can you see it?

Coming next: breath and motion.

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