ashtanga yoga breathing

Ashtanga Yoga Breathing – Is It Ujjayi Breath?

The Breathing in Ashtanga Yoga – Is it ujjayi?

An incredibly common question to hear from students is what is the correct breathing in ashtanga yoga. Or, in my opinion any yoga. I don’t make a differentiation with the question as to yoga breathing in general. As I consistently mention, ashtanga yoga is simply a style of yoga, wherein the basic techniques are simply formatted into a set sequence of movements. That is the only real qualifier of this type of yoga in my opinion.

Nevertheless, in ashtanga yoga there is a good deal of confusion around this due to differing instructions given. Every day in the  shala in Mysore I heard Sharathji say ‘free breathing’. On the other hand, when you talk to the older teachers they will say differently.

In fact, they mention Pattabhi Jois berating people for not making enough sound when breathing. It’s quite clear that the way they were instructed to breath was a lot more intense than we are today. So, there is a valid debate around exactly how we should breath in ashtanga yoga, with some teachers telling us we are not breathing enough, whilst others saying we are over-breathing

It’s not the degree of sound made that makes it ujjayi breathing

I feel this is a fundamental mistake, how much intensity the breath is made with does differentiate ujjayi, yet, not necessarily the degree of audible sound it produces.

  • It is not the sound that necessarily dictates whether the breath is ujjayi or not, it’s the degree of restriction or constraint that the breath is made under. The pressure in which the breath is drawn in.
  • It is this technique that justifies the breath as Ujayi or not. For, the constriction in the back of the throat (glottis), is common to all breathing. On the other hand, the sound is almost completely arbitrary. Anyone, even a young child, can breath like Darth Vader..
So, what breathing should be the ashtanga breathing?

So, although I would suggest, that what makes our breathing ujjayi or not is simply about degree, this is not a trifling matter in the debate. Indeed, if you try to practice ujayi throughout an hour and half Ashtanga yoga you will notice the difference. It will certainly, seriously heat you up. It may also wind you up.

At least, this was my experience, and why I am on the free-breathing side of the fence quite categorically. On the other hand, the older teachers clearly, from what they have conveyed to me on our podcast were taught at least a much more forceful style of breathing, if not ujayi.

How and why this came to be amended is uncertain. Indeed, a question to which I would love to know the answer. Yet, Sharathji, when questioned, has taken pains to point out that this was never instructed. In fact, that it was always; ‘free breathing, with sound’. Which, hardly helps solve the matter.

Yoga breathing is powerful and subtle so this is important to get right

Breathe is a subtle thing. If we abuse it we can pay the price. I say this in my experience of using ujjayi throughout a whole dynamic asana routine for a number of years. Which is to say; it’s not ujjayi that’s’ inherently bad, rather, the kind of conditions it’s used under. Indeed, ujjayi is intense. Hence, it is a pranayama, the breathing here must be the focus – not in conjunction with a demanding asana practice. Certainly, not for an hour and a half or more.

One also must be ready for it. With the effort at constriction of the breathing apparatus an incredible amount of pressure is built up in the head using the ujjayi breath. This is not inherently a bad thing. But, neither is is preliminary practice. Which is why, the pranayamas, more demanding breath patterns, come later, after years of simpler breath in ashtanga physical practice.

Yoga breathing is much more than just making a sound

A novice generally takes this as the defining aspect of their attempt at breathing, Especially, if they are instructed that they are doing ujjayi and the making of a degree of sound when breathing is a definitive aspect of whether it’s being done right or not. Which, sadly, is often the case.

Instead, ashtanga breathing (meaning, as we said, yoga breathing in general) is difficult much subtler than that. Taking the conclusion of all our efforts as the breathing noisily, hardly scraping the surface of what ought to be aiming at.

Noise, as in life, is a distraction. Instead, if we take the noise away most often, we realise that we are doing and understand very little about how we are meant to breathe. So, my first advice, is removing the obvious, the noise, for something deeper to show itself behind the confusion this provides.

Yoga breathing means bandha

Pressure is important. Which is why we cannot separate breath from bandha. For, this contraction (uddiyana bandha) of the lower abdomen, will increase the kind of way the breath is taken into the body allowing for a fuller breath.

Without this kind of resistance breathing, we can only ever breath in a very shallow manner. Which means, basically, bandha and breath cannot be separated. They are one and the same thing. A full and true yoga breath must rely on bandha.

Why breathing fully is so good for us

Generally, we end up using very little of our lung capacity. At a guess, I would say, less than a third of what our lungs can hold in terms of air. So, slowing down the breath by creating a narrowing of the aperture through which it is drawn (as well as an internal vacuum in order that it is sucked into by use of bandha), means that we simply breath so much more effectively and profoundly in terms of the usage in terms of quantity of our lungs being used.

However, this affect is much greater than just tonifying our lungs. The oxygen uptake is evidently going to be exponentially increased, which has a knock-on effect for our cellular health of the body most generally in what Pattabhi Jois called the purification of our blood. Well, actually, he called it blood boiling.. The cells are highly invigorated in being bathed in healthier, oxygenated blood, which has a huge knock-on effect.

Is yoga breathing belly-breathing?

It has irritated me for years hearing the instruction to breath from your stomach. To which I would always make the point that we don’t have lungs in our stomach. On the other hand, the usage of the stomach as mentioned, in particular, uddiyana bandha, is imperative in the process of yoga breathing.

So, the stomach-area is indeed instrumental after all. Nevertheless, the breath should not be directed there, rather around the back of the body, roughly where the kidneys lie, filling up the chest first medially, in bellowing the ribs.

What we can say with certainty is that the engine is not at all the throat as seems to be believed when we take the ashtanga breath is simply about making as much sound as possible. Yet, neither is it the stomach exactly either, In fact, it is the diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic breathing in Yoga

We are aiming at diaphragmatic breathing, infact, not this or that label. So,  we need to put our focus there accordingly. How do we do that? I would suggest focussing on the area where the two front and bottom ribs meet. A spot of great importance in many cultures (for example, in Japanese called the hara, in Chinese the dan tien).

It is here that the diaphragm attaches to the muscular structure of the body. It is then here that we are centred in the very hub of our power in the deepest experience of our energy in the body, our breath. But, it is not easy, it takes practice and namely practice of the bandhas. Indeed, that is their real import – in order to manipulate the diaphragm and engage this breathing.

In the end we will know if we are breathing right for yoga

We won’t need to ask if we’re doing it right. We’ll know. After practice, you should not feel spacey, stressed or tense if you have been cultivating a skilful approach to breath. All of which can be the case when people attempt to utilise a kind of ujjayi breath. Which is why, even though free breathing leaves a lot as a term to be desired, it’s still a better one I feel.

1 Comment

  1. Patty Townsend on May 6, 2023 at 2:42 pm

    Very wise and interesting post. Thank you, Adam. When in doubt, breathe freely!
    I do think a lot of problems with ujjayi developed – at least in the states – as the practice started to be taught in local yoga studios and fitness centers. Studios had real (financial) constraints that strongly encouraged them to shorten the practice to 1.5 hours. That would be fine, if the series was also shortened. But many times teachers would try to get the entire – usually primary – series into the 1.5 hour slot. In my experience, that is when ujjayi became what is now commonly a harsh pushing of breath in and out of the body. Skillful ujjay as you have referenced above, Adam, necessarily means it is responsive and refined, relational to the inner body. May we all continue to refine and explore together!

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