If you've ever visited a high-altitude location, you will know the feeling of disorientation and how at first it was difficult to breathe. When this feeling is experienced, it reminds us how important breath is, and how being aware and conscious of breath throughout everyday life is vital.
In yoga, this becomes even more apparent, as the breath is what helps move you through a practice. Without a conscious focus on breath, a yoga practice will become strained and challenging. In yoga, breathing techniques are referred to as Pranayama, which translates to "extension of life force." Breath is life, and yet an active focus on the breath throughout everyday life is often ignored.
Ujjayi breathing is a technique that is commonly used in a physical yoga practice and becomes even more important when practicing more active styles, such as power, flow, or vinyasa yoga. Ujjayi translates to extended victory, and that is the purpose of the breath: to extend and regulate the flow of oxygen to ensure a successful and safe practice. When used properly, Ujjayi breathing helps to create heat internally, which prepares the body for movement. Using this technique also regulates and extends the breath, which can help to calm the body when working through longer holds and difficult poses. The idea is that eventually this breath can help to bring an element of meditation into your active practice.
Ujjayi is often referred to as ocean breath, as it creates an audible rolling sound in the back of the throat that is reminiscent of the ocean. This sound is created by slightly constricting the back of the throat for the duration of each breath. Once comfortable with this breath, it can be used throughout an entire practice or class.
1) Start in a comfortable seated position and breathe normally until you feel grounded and aware of your breath. In order to start constricting the back of your throat, you will take your next few inhales through your nose and then exhale through your open mouth. When exhaling, start to actively push the air out while making a "Haa" sound (think of fogging up a mirror). You should start to feel a natural constriction in the back of your throat when you exhale like this.
2) After you feel comfortable with inhaling through your nose and out through your open mouth, the next step is to create the same effect and sensation through a closed mouth. Inhale through your nose and then out through your nose, directing the breath across the back of the throat, trying to create the same sensation that was created when your mouth was open. You should feel a slight constriction and hear a rolling ocean sound being created.
3) Start by practicing this breath for five minutes at a time, and once you feel comfortable with the breath you can slowly begin to incorporate it into your practice. Eventually, you will be able to use this breath for the entirety of your active practice.
By focusing on your breath and regulating it, you can take the focus off of the struggle that can exist in some poses. The goal is that eventually you will be able to find the balance between effort and allowing in your practice, which will make your experience and relationship with physical yoga more enjoyable.