Ashtanga Yoga Breathing – It’s Not Ujjayi Breath!

Almost every day in the shala in Mysore you will hear Sharath say ‘free breathing’, it’s not ujayi breath that we’re asked to practice during yoga-asana or physical performance of posture.

Ujayi is such an intense way of breathing that it’s reserved for a pranayama (sitting practice of breathing alone) or very specific and sedentary positions. If you try to practice this throughout an hour and half Ashtanga yoga it will leave you feeling seriously wound up and pretty spaced out on finishing. In short, this laboured kind of breath is a seriously bad idea.

How this ever came into the teaching method is uncertain, but Sharath when questioned in conference has taken pains to point out that this was never instructed, and instead, what was asked for was ‘free breathing, with sound’.

Furthermore, as clarification, he says that only you should hear the sound of your breathing and not your neighbour.

This is very different to the massive and, what I could be described as aggressive breathing I encounter quite often when I teach students who I haven’t instructed. I often think it’s quite a wonder they get up and walk out after an hour of doing that.

It needs to be stressed this kind of thing is deeply detrimental to the refining of one’s practice and energetic body. With the effort to make that sound an incredible amount of pressure is built up in the head as, though is not the case with a true ujayi breath, but with all I have witnessed, in order to make that huge noise the breath is taken in very superficially by the lungs into the back of throat alone, though at the same time with great strain and tension.

Nevertheless, for many years, I readily admit that I was one of the biggest culprits in this way of breathing. The reason I come to appreciate now is that the breathing is very, very, hard to get, being a subtle as it is profound.

I for one, do not do well with subtlety, and therefore, when I was told that I have to do some kind of special breathing when practicing, I did the thing that comes most easily to us, to breath as heavily as we can. But, in this case, big is not always better. Not only does it literally coil up a big knot of tension in the body, in, hugely ironically, our attempt at doing the very opposite, it suffices to content, and therefore block the student from any deeper and more thoughtful consideration of the role of the breath.

This is, perhaps, the worst consequence of it all as the nature of refining the breathing is the very crux of the physical practice being that very high on which successful and holistic body work revolve.

Where the making of a sound is the only thing going on with many students, in a deeper, more mature, appreciation of the application of breathing technique, it is actually only the bi-product of a process. By restricting the aperture in the back of the throat, you actually get the chance to take the breath in more slowly and thoroughly into the lungs through purposefully generating a build-up of eternal pressure.

This quality, of what I like to refer to as ‘a thickness of breath’, is only possible when a slight contraction is made in the throat, otherwise, the breadth cannot be caught properly and enters only into the upper chest in a quick and imprecise kind of gust, lacking any kind of control. However, it is only a relatively simple component in the whole methodology and does not suffice as the breathing itself.

Having applied this aspect of technique, the air then is made to bypass the upper lungs and throat area to be taken first into the very deepest and hardest to reach area of these organs which feels like breathing into the middle of the back, around the sides, in fact, where the kidneys reside anatomically. Having satisfactorily controlled the breath to force it into this difficult to reach area, we can now systematically breath up through the back of the body, and then, finally the front of the body, mid-ribs and clavicle area, where we would normally breath if we weren’t taking care to use a specific method.

The engine in all this is actually, not the throat, but the lower abdomen. This is really what demands our concentration and what the ‘big sound’ tends to obscure, almost blocking it out. If one considers that we actually need to contact and fully engage the diaphragm to breath with any significance, it makes sense that the muscles found below this area are to be utilised in this process rather than those around the throat, which do not have any obvious capability on a bio-mechanic level for the manipulation of the diaphragm.

The technique, I am in fact referring to is known as ‘bandha’ within traditional Indian teaching of yoga, usually translated as ‘abdominal lock’ and, categorically instructed that it must be used in correct ‘yoga’ breathing. They are not mutually exclusive, you cannot have proper breathing without bandha, and there is little use of systematic application of bandha alone without breathing.

I much prefer to translate this term into English as an ‘abdominal seal’. The action involved is not the obvious clenching of the superficial rectus abdominus (‘abs’) that I myself used to take it for, and the term ‘lock’ would suggest. Here it’s vital to try to be as specific as possible in our teaching, as the method is extremely subtle and obscure involving much deeper, hidden, and internal layers of muscle fascia.

We are actually involved in creating a vacuum in the lower part of the body which literally pulls the air inside us, almost involuntarily then, to fill this hole. That’s why the description of it as ‘seal’ serves better; though no verbal explanation really does it justice, it’s so complicated, involving, as it does, numerous processes utilised at the same time. Hence, like driving a car, you can’t talk it through in your head or you couldn’t do it, you have to keep practicing the component parts until you simply experience the indescribable nature of the whole experience.

Finally, we return to the idea of contraction of the throat, as though misleading, it does serve as the half of this equation in producing this vacuum, though not the active principle in all this; rather only the lid to this vessel which needs to be in place in order to ‘trap’ this special kind of quality of breath.

I have heard it said, that the ‘jalandhara bandha’, or throat-lock need to be applied at all times then during practice, though I feel it misleading to refer to the necessary engagement as requiring that kind of level of force.

Just to let it be known that the area of the throat is to be stimulated, but not in the way it is normatively approached. It is crucially important that the breathing is experienced as deep, but relaxed, not laboured as is always the case where sound is the exclusive focus.

Contrary to this, once all aspects of technique are applied, we are paradoxically, left to breath completely naturally without any specific effort. In other words, the effort is applied in the background methodology, but once that is achieved, there is no intended or affected breath during practice other than the one arising spontaneously and un-prescriptively (allowed natural degree of variation) with each and every different asana.

Happy breathing!


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