Are we not meant to be doing Ujayi?
We have all been in a class where one person is offering a reasonable challenge to our citta Vritti, mind control, through effort in a style of breathing that seems to dominate the whole room. Indeed, I have to hold my hand up and say that this person was also me (albeit in my earlier days); my wife even refused to practice in the same room as me my breathing was so distracting.
However, to my defense, this was the way that we were instructed in the earlier days, or, at least, how I took this instruction. It was clearly and regularly explained that we ought to ‘contract the glotis’ (back of throat) and draw the air over the back of the throat, making a ‘hissing, or sibilant sound’. This was “ujayi breathing”, often further claimed as ‘a heating and purifying/cleansing’ breath, one that was instrumental to the whole practice.
Well, apparently, this was not correct, or at least it was a wrong interpretation of what the first Americans’ that arrived in Mysore were taught. Apparently, Pattabhi Jois never taught this, it was a wrong understanding of his broken English. For, Ujayi-breathing is only to be used in isolation as a breathing-technique, pranayama, whereas, Sharathju Jois has for many years stated categorically that the breathing should be ‘free breathing with sound’. Qualifying this further in saying that only your partner next to you ought to hear this breath (latterly in Mysore, we were so close, indeed, your partner could probably hear your heartbeat, let alone breath, but, anyway), the important thing is that it is no a strained or contrived breath.
Was this, indeed a mistaken interpretation of the original instruction, or, has it changed? My feeling is that the degree of sound emphasized previously was probably more in remembering the old encouragement (not to the degree I did, it but, still) of this, from the respected, older teachers. Nevertheless, I don’t believe the deeper instruction as to the technique has changed. For, it was never said that we should breath ‘in’ the throat, rather, bypass it; another common description being ‘expanding the lungs like bellows’. So, the breath was never meant to be stuck in the throat, it was always meant to be a full-diaphragmatic breath, using the whole of the lung.
Now, obviously this makes sense, but it’s not easy to do. It also requires an understanding of the technique of bandha, the use of the lower abdomen, in order to pull on the diaphragm in order that the breath is similarly drawn down filling the lungs sequentially from bottom to top. Without this, indeed, the air can only be drawn very superficially into the very top area of the lungs, around the throat and collarbone. This renders the breath, evidently, not efficient, or, anywhere near what it could be. To this end, I am convinced it has always been a misunderstanding of technique, it would never have been instructed to breath in this manner.
However, it is natural to focus on making a sound in the absence of any other feeling, yet in the knowledge that something ought to be going on with the breathing. On the other hand, making a lot of sound then acts as a substitute, even obscures the possibility of further inquiry into what, in reality, is a far subtler method of breathing. For, it takes up all mental space, as well as seeming to as a conclusion as to technique, so no other exploration is sought. I went down this cul-de-sac for far too long myself, not learning anything about the deeper, profounder aspects of correct diaphragmatic breathing, until I refrained from making the sound.
At this point, as it always the case, in not doing what we have previously been doing, it feels negligent, like we are now doing nothing at all. But, as is the case with learning anything, it is only when we drop into the space of the unknown that something new is allowed to come through. This is how it happened for me; gradually suspending my wish to conclude my understanding of breath as simply a kind of ‘over breathing’, an infinitely more helpful understanding slowly started to emerge – presumably from the place it was sheltering from all the noise I was making.
This was much needed, for the ‘ujayi’ breath never felt good anyway; leaving one after practice feeling quite stirred-up with the build up of pressure in the head that this breath creates. It is a constant source of confusion to me why we persist in doing things that don’t feel good, even injure us, but, there it is, we all do; and with the best intentions. Even so, it must be said, that breathing in the throat is very detrimental; better to breath normally until it is more understood exactly what is being aimed for.
Finally, a couple of closing observations. Firstly, I have taught a few opera-singers in my time, who often initially offer resistance about the use of a pulling in of the navel area in bandha. In contrast to this, they have been instructed to ‘breath from the belly’; an idea that has always seemed strange to me, since we, indeed, have no breathing equipment in the stomach. Indeed, the stomach is used, and by the same token, it is important not to clench the abdominal area, rather, the contraction is lower than this, and more usefully framed as a ‘holding, not a more rudimental ‘clenching’. Yet, the fact, remains, that to get the most out of the lungs, bandha has to be used. Otherwise, if the abdomen is allowed to stay relaxed, in fact, encouraged to push it out; anatomically speaking, we will not be capable of creating the vacuum implicit in drawing the breath to the very bottom of the lungs.
Secondly, the breath is, moreover, cannot, always remain ‘smooth and long’, nor, ‘free’. At points, in what is quite a challenging, gymnastic routine, it will be similarly challenged. This is a big part of the whole point of the dynamism of these postures; in order, not only work on building the deeper levels of strength and stamina for better breathing, but also, simply to focus our awareness back to it in the attempt to maintain any kind of breathing in the demands of more advanced asanas.
In the same way, it is also important to recognize ones’ own breathing as it is. It may not be equal; the inhale and exhale may not flow smoothly, may not be of equal duration to each other. The point is, that it be our breath, and for this reason, a natural and ‘free’ one, as it is the one we breathe. Most importantly, it is an honest one. For Yoga, over and above anything else, is a method for honesty; towards the wish and ability to live life as realistically, truly, as possible. Our breathing then, should symbolize this intention, being the most fundamental representation of our current state. That is, even if it is seen as limited, or even really is so. Sometimes, we hold our breath, at points we wish to breath out for longer; it is our practice, and we should be allowed to be natural, indeed be the breath, rather than come to see it as just another force of control over us from the outside.