Ujjayi or Ocean Breath
Master your breath,
let the self be in bliss,
contemplate on the sublime within you.”
~ Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Running around the playground as a ten year old, I remember my PE teacher Mr Grady telling us to breathe into our chests. He drummed that into us every class, and for years after I wondered why I was always out of breath when I exerted myself. I even thought I might have asthma, as it felt so constricted. It wasn't until my firstborn arrived that my breathing changed. As his tiny body lay on my bed, I studied the movement of his breath, and was struck with how it naturally moved deeply in his belly. I was determined to copy my son and change my breathing habits. This was my first introduction to pranayama or breath practice and my teacher was my newborn.
These days, at the beginning of every yoga class I teach, we begin with ujjayi breath. To practice ujjayi, find a comfortable seated position or lie down comfortably on the floor. Notice where the breath is moving in the body, and bring it deeply into the belly, without forcing it. Allow the jaw to relax and release, softening the facial muscles. Try bringing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, as it helps to remind the jaw to let go. Soften the tongue and the root of the tongue, so it relaxes and creates a slight constriction in the back of the throat. Then soften and release the soft palate (the soft spot in the roof of your mouth), so there is the feeling of a slight arching and releasing upwards. This will create a slight constriction in the nasal passageway as well, so the breath sounds somewhat aspirated. It is often likened to the sound of the ocean, which is quite apt, since we are comprised of 60% salty water. Keep the inhalations and exhalations through your nose, with your jaw released and relaxed.
Pranayama or breath focus is a practice that deepens our experience of life, whether it occurs during yoga or during the course of our day. Ujjayi pranayama or “victorious breath” deepens our experience, allows monkey mind to quiet, soothes the nervous system, calms the heart, builds stamina, relaxes the body, releases toxins, builds heat and oxygenates the blood. What a wonderful gift it is to support our body, mind, and spirit to bring balance and equilibrium. The more this breath can be brought into your yoga practice, daily life and other sport activities, the more beneficial you'll find the experience of living in your body. It brings you deeper into the soul of your practice.
Some of the poses that help me remember to practice ujjayi are any of the balance poses. I notice the difference immediately. Without ujjayi, my base is less stable and my mind often chatters away at me. With ujjayi breath, lifting and stabilizing in balances comes much easier and more fluidly. My experience deepens and settles into my body and mind in a different way. It allows me to relax into a pose without having to think about it so much.
It's not just in yoga though that I find ujjayi beneficial. It's always a reminder to quiet the mind and soothe my nervous system, whether I am already relaxing or in what I perceive to be a stressful situation. It is my favorite go to breath.
“When the breath wanders the mind is also unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika