Sometimes a yoga class feels more like an Ujjayi contest; whoever has the loudest breath is the most serious yogi. But is having “Darth Vader” inhabit the back of our throat really serving us?
Ujjayi translates into “victorious breath,” and is used by yogis as a method for empowering and growing the pranic body (our energy), as well as focusing the mind. Physiologically, it involves a slight constriction on the glottis (the opening in the back of the throat), causing the breath to have a louder sound than when we normally breathe.
Think of ujjayi (or any form of breath control) as medicine. Everything that exists in nature can be a poison or a medicine, depending on the nature of the substance, as well as the nature of the person taking the medicine.
What are the qualities of ujjayi breath-medicine? Well, a loud or strong ujjayi is a grosser (as opposed to subtle) form of pranayama. It is, by nature, sharp, focused, heating, and slightly unstable. It is a more fiery form of breath, useful for bringing our focus within the body, centering the mind into the strong sound, as well as adding to the heating nature of doing asana. These are all wonderful qualities, and they serve a purpose. But as our yoga practice develops, keeping such a powerful ujjayi may actually prevent us from feeling the more subtle aspects of prana.
One of the central precepts of yoga is that the more subtle a technique, the more powerful it is. Prana is a felt experience. Prana expresses itself in the subtle realm of inner sensations. If our physical breath is too strong, we may be covering up our ability to witness the sweet, soft, intelligent life force that is prana.
The next time you are practicing asana, start with a strong ujjayi breath. Rate your loudest ujjayi at a 10. Feel how that strong breath focuses your mind and starts to melt your body. As you continue your practice, slowly begin to back off from a 10 to a 9, and then an 8, all the way down to your softest, most subtle ujjayi. By the end of your practice your breath should be around a 1 or 2 as you prepare for Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Krishnamacharya (the grandaddy of most of today’s beloved yoga teachers) suggested that the subtle ujjayi be soft, thin in your throat, and “oily.” After Savasana, spend a few minutes in seated meditation. Take 10 breaths with loudest ujjayi possible (level 10). Notice how it makes you feel. Hot or cold? Focused or distracted? Expanded or internalized? Does it make the mind feel calm and happy or slightly agitated?
Now, take it back down to a level 1, your softest ujjayi possible. Notice how the glottis constricts only slightly in the back of the throat, keeping the breath “thin,” as Krishnamacharya suggested. Try to get the breath as smooth as possible, making the breath “oily.” As you do these 10 breaths, notice the difference between the loud ujjayi and the soft ujjayi.
Now you have an experience of the varying degrees of ujjayi and can use one or the other, according to what breath-medicine you need. I suggest starting with a stronger breath, and as the practice progresses, working your way to an almost-silent ujjayi. Remember, the more subtle, the more powerful!