Learning how to breathe isn’t just a neat little thing you can do when you do yoga – it’s a central, and, some would say, nonnegotiable part of the practice. Pranayama, the art and science of controlling the breath, is an integral part of the Eight Limbs: Getting your body into the right state through breathing is the threshold to the next goals – focusing attention and calming the mind. Regulating your breathing has a measurable effect on the nervous system, so whether you’re a yogi or not, learning how to breathe differently can be life-changing. And a specific kind of breathing, known as ujjayi breath, is a very effective way to home into that calming, regulating part of the nervous system.
“Ujjayi is also called Ocean Sounding Breath,” says DevarshiSteven Hartman, Dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga and the former head of Kripalu’s School of Yoga. “But the difficulty is with the simplicity. True enlightenment lies in the continual practice of this breath alone.”
The key, he says, is to layer ujjayi on top of dirgha breath, which itself breaks down into three separate phases. “Dirgha breath is learning to articulate the full range of expression of your inhale and exhale with consciousness,” says Hartman. “With dirgha breath, one breathes first into the lower abdomen, belly, then fills the middle (the ribs), then up to the top (the chest and clavicles). When exhaling, one empties from the top down – chest, ribs, then belly. Inhale belly, ribs, and chest. Exhale chest, ribs, and belly. Learning how to fully articulate the lung’s capacity helps to break open habitual patterning in the breath, restoring consciousness to resisted emotion and experience.”
Once you have dirgha breath down, you can bring in ujjayi. “By slightly constricting the glottis (the back of the throat) one creates a smaller passageway for the breath which results in a sound like the ocean, or the beginning of a snore. Some call this the Darth Vader Breath.” As Jason Crandell says, what you want to do in ujjayi breath is reduce the aperture of the throat to get slow, smooth, regulated breath. Imagine that you’re trying to fog an imaginary mirror in front of you – it will be audible and intentional, but not labored.
Hartman says that part of the value in this type of breath is that it may stimulate the vagus nerve, which among many basic bodily functions, is also linked to mood. “Recent studies have been focusing on the importance of vagal tone and happiness. The parasympathetic nervous system is soothed, natural endorphins (antidepressants) are released, the fright/flight response reduces, mental activity calms, the heart rate slows, digestion is aided, and much more – all from dirgha-ujjayi breath.”
Deliberate breathing not only calms the nervous system in a physical way, but since it gives us something to focus our attention on, it also calms the mind in another way.The “monkey mind” phenomenon that many of us experience every day happens when the mind is unfocused and allowed to spin in multiple directions. But focusing attention on the breath (or on anything, for that matter) can reign in the wandering mind. “Practicing dirgha ujjayi breath results in becoming more present in your life,” says Hartman. “It establishes the ability to be in charge of directing your attention on what you choose, deliberately calming the common chatter of the mind at will. This ability begins to break existing thought patterns that are indoctrinated, unhelpful and unconscious. Witness consciousness (Vijnana Maya Kosha) is re-established and you become free to choose where and what you wish to place your attention on… Clearly being able to deliberately direct your attention is a foundational skill for obtaining a sense of well-being, happiness and self-improvement.”
Again, ujjayi breath can be integrated into your practice whether you’re doing asana or a stiller form of meditation. And the great thing about it is that you can take it with you outside the home, at work, sitting in the park, or even in a coffee shop. (If you’re self-conscious, you can do it a little more quietly, but for the most part, ujjayi is quieter than you think, and passersby aren’t likely to take notice.)
“Throughout the scriptures,” says Hartman, “the authors explain clearly that yoga asana without deliberate breath is not yoga at all; merely gymnastics. Deliberate and conscious breath, dirgha ujjayi, ignites the whole being into presence, integration, and ultimately the true knowing of the experience of bliss…beyond words.”
He says to try ujjayi breath wherever you are, and as often as you can. “Just begin,” he says. “That’s the assignment.” He suggests making it a key part of your practice now and in the future, whether you’re doing asana, a sitting meditation, or just taking in the view of your cityscape or landscape. “That’s yoga – union,” he says. “Yoga is not yoga without ujjayi breath. Begin.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.