Ashtanga Yoga is a complete movement and breathing system. These two limbs, asana and pranayama, are truly inextricable.
Although pranayama can be practiced in a single asana in stillness, yoga postures and vinyasas must be practiced with a consciousness of breath.
The breath informs and educates the movement. The breath gives shape to the asana itself.
In Ashtanga Yoga the breathing technique practiced during the sequence of asanas is ujjayi.
Ujjayi breathing regulates the energetic flow in the body as you move through postures and it creates an audible soundtrack for your practice. In this way it is a wonderful tool for harnessing your attention inwards, offering you a chance to tune into the subtler aspects of your yoga practice.
Yesterday my teacher David Garrigues offered us some simple but powerful explanations and tips for improving our ujjayi breathing. I wanted to share them with you today for your own benefit but also because I believe these ideas would be super helpful for other yoga teachers to draw from when introducing the practice of ujjayi to new students.
- How do we get to know the feeling of ujjayi? Yawn, whisper or swallow. These are natural actions that close the glottis, or the vocal folds, in the same manner that we initiate for ujjayi breathing. You can experience in these actions simultaneously the openness in back of the throat and the restriction in the vocal chords.
- Feel the air moving over the throat. Imagine that you are not breathing through either the mouth nor the nose, but rather, through an opening in the center of the throat.
- The in-breath is a sibilant, making the sound of “SO”. As you inhale, the root of the palette expands and awakens, space is created in the back of the mouth, the whole jaw is relaxed in order to hold this space. Allow the inner ear to open to the sound and sensation of this breath as the “Sssss” sound is elongated.
- The out-breath is an aspirate, creating the sound of “HUM”. As you practice ujjayi, consciously work with these two syllables – whisper internally “SO” on the inhale and “HUM” on the exhale. Sustain the sound for the full length of the breath. This repetition will increase your awareness of your breath and also help cultivate a meditative state of mind.
- The in-breath is a pull; a suction-like feeling produced from drawing the air in slowly over the resistance of the partially–closed glottis. Tune into this pulling sensation at both the root chakra in the base of the pelvis and the upper palette in the roof of the mouth.
- The out-breath is a squeeze; a squeezing action in the ribcage, the lungs, the abdomen and the pelvic floor. The root lock, mula bandha, is directly engaged as the result of this squeezing. Ensure that you are exhaling completely to the very base to a point of emptiness.
- Pay attention to the movement of the diaphragm. By observing and sensing its natural movements, you can refine your ujjayi. As you inhale, feel how the diaphragm contracts, lowers and flattens to make space for the lungs to expand with breath. As you exhale, experience the diaphragm lifting and reforming its dome-like shape.
- Get in touch with the vayu patterns. Vayu literally means to “blow”. Of the 5 vayus, ujjayi breathing is governed by prana vayu and apana vayu. Prana vayu rules the space from the abdomen to the collar-bones. Prana vayu creates the expansive, upwards, inhalation pattern. Experience these energetics as you breathe in. Apana vayu consists of the space from the navel down to the pelvic floor. Apana vayu makes the out-breath pattern, that feeling of down and inwards. Tapping into these energetics assists in regulating the breath and freeing the movement of life-force in the body.
- A consciousness of breath is a consciousness of mind. By regulating the length and depth of breath and by following the movement of its energetic path from the throat chakra to the root and back again, you are able to clarify your physical movements within asanas, but also achieve a level of clarity of mind.
- Ujjayi gives you the power to churn prana through your body, awaken the energy centers and channels to illuminate the central axis. Conscious breathing = conscious living.
This is all quite simple on one level, basic even, but the practice is extraordinarily powerful and profound. David recommends that we spend some time in a seated or supported supine position simply practicing ujjayi as well as maintaining an awareness and relationship with ujjayi in the asana sequences.
I hope you’ve found this to be illuminating. My practice today was enriched deeply by tuning into these teachings of David’s.
For those of you who want to learn more about breath and the traditional pranayama practice of Ashtanga, you will be pleased to hear that DG is about to publish an extensive manual on yogic breathing as well as a 2 DVD set on pranayama. These valuable tools will be available this March. I will give you an update as soon as they are available.
For more information, visit ashtangapranayama.com