If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you’ve probably heard of ujjayi breathing. If you haven’t heard the term, you might recognize it as that sort of loud, raspy, almost a little embarrassing breathing noise that your yoga teacher makes. Why, you may ask, do yoga teachers breathe funny like that? I’ll tell you how to try a few breaths at home, and then once you’ve got the noise down, I’ll tell you more about it and why it can be beneficial.
To begin ujjayi breathing, take a deep breath in through your nose. Now open your mouth and exhale while whispering the word “Ha”. Make the “Ha” last the length of your exhale; don’t vocalize the “Ha” or say it out loud, just whisper it. Do this a few times and notice how your throat constricts when you do it. Then shut your mouth. Keep thinking “Ha” and see if you can still make the same noise, with the same throat constriction, while exhaling only through your nose. Engage your abdominal muscles to help press all the air out. Got it? Now try to make the noise as you inhale through the nose too. If it helps, think “Sa” on your inhale. See if you can feel the cool air on the roof of your mouth as you inhale and exhale.
Ujjayi breathing sounds funny when you do it, but once you get past feeling self-conscious about the sound, you can use this technique as a tool to improve your yoga practice. Ujjayi means “victory”. It’s a warming breath that creates heat in the body. I feel like the throat constriction helps me to get a deeper, fuller breath. When you combine ujjayi with diaphragmatic breathing, you can powerfully cleanse stale air from the bottom of your lungs and get fresh oxygen moving through your system.
Use ujjayi breath during yoga class to help build up heat as you practice. We already know that focusing on the breath can help us to stay strong and hold poses longer; the ujjayi breath helps with that by being a nice deep breath, and having a nice deep breath makes it easier to keep the breathing slow and steady. Believe it or not, the sound helps too. Hearing yourself breathe a slow, deep, steady breath can be soothing to the mind and can help you focus.
This is why your yoga teacher breathes so loudly: she’s using the sound to calm the students and remind them to breathe. Imagine it: there you are, trying to hold your plank or high lunge or whatever pose it is that challenges you most, and you’re wobbling away, your arms or legs are shaking and you want to be done with it already. Your teacher comes over to you and makes some minor adjustment to your posture (or maybe she just adjusts the guy next to you), and of course she’s breathing loudly, slowly and evenly. Without noticing that it’s happening, you try to deepen your breath to match hers; maybe you were even holding your breath, but now you’re breathing deeply, and maybe you wobble a little less, or feel a little burst of strength to carry you through the pose.
Ujjayi breath is a breath of heat and energy and victory. Engaging ujjayi breath always make me feel determined to keep holding the pose. It’s good for tapas! Practice it whenever you can, even off your mat (if there’s no one around to look at you like you’re a crazy person), and you may find it helps with whatever you’re dealing with.