Ujjayi, pronounced as ‘ooh-JAI-yee’, is a sanskrit term meaning victory; and pranayama means the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises; therefore, ujjayi pranayama means “victorious breathing”, and in the yogic traditions, this breathing technique helps you achieve victory over the unsettled mind.
Ujjayi pranayama is frequently practiced in many yoga classes because of its simplicity and effectiveness. Due to the way this breathing style elongates the breath and brings focus through sound, it is especially helpful for stimulating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which brings about a relaxation response in the body. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone. When we are ramped up with stress (an over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system), conscious breathing techniques, such as Ujjayi Pranayama, where there is good diaphragmatic movement and extending the length of the exhale, are especially helpful.
Ujjayi pranayama requires a slight constriction in the back of the throat by engaging your whisper muscles which produces a light audible quality to the breath and creates a warmth in the throat where the vagus nerve runs through. The sound encourages a wakening of the inner ear, and as we listen to that sound, it anchors our attention.
How to do Ujjayi Pranayama
To learn this breath, exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging up a mirror, making a “haaa” sound from the back of the throat. Practice this a few times and see if you can extend the length of the “haaa” sound. Now, breathe in the same manner but close your mouth and exhale out of your nose, noticing the whisper sound coming from the back of the throat. Some people describe the sounds like the waves of the ocean.
It is important to note the sound produced by the constriction of the throat is traditionally done on both the inhale and exhale; however, I find it helpful to start with practicing making the sound only on the exhale, at least until it becomes more familiar and comfortable.
Start with an even count for your inhale and exhale. For even deeper relaxation, gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4-count on the inhale and exhale the exhale to a 6 or 8 count exhale. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
In Yoga we use many different tools to steady the mind and body. Often in my classes I teach pranayama (breathing exercises) for this purpose and I recently revisited a simple but effective one know as Bhramari Breathing. If you are like me and sometimes have a really hard time settling the mind into a meditation practice, consider this pranayama technique.
The basic Bhramari breath is easy and simple, making it great for the beginner student. You breathe in and out through the nose, and on the exhales you make a low pitched hum sound (from the throat), extending your breath out as long as feels comfortable. Often equated to the sound of a buzzing of a bee, it is sometimes known as bee breath.
What makes this breathing technique so special is how the hum noise effortlessly secures your attention. In addition to the sound, the sensation of the sound vibrations in the body also latch your focus, making it less likely for the mind to dart about in thought. This makes it a very easy meditation technique for people with anxious/busy minds.
In addition the extended exhales activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for resting, digesting, and relaxing – essentially it has a calming effect on the nervous system. For more detail on this process have a look at a previous blog I wrote which gets into the physiology of breathing and the nervous system in Learning to Take a Deep Breath.
Here’s some step by step instructions on how to do Bhramari Breath:
Sit in a comfortable position and preferably with eyes closed
Inhale and exhale through the nose, and for the entire length of your exhalation, make a low to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat
Attempt to prolong the buzzing sound on the exhalation as long as you comfortably can
Keep the face, jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed as you practice
Do 6 – 10 rounds of this breathing and pay attention to the sound and the feeling of the vibrations in your body
Once completed, return to normal breathing and notice how you feel
For more information on this technique, have a look at a really good article by Timothy McCall, 5 Ways to Practice Bhramari, which explains variations off the basic Bhramari breath.
I recently had abdominal surgery and with that the nurses give you a host of recommendations for post op recovery and health. One of those recommendations tweaked my yoga brain. They advised me to regularly take deep breaths and cough after surgery. I found out this advice is given to help prevent individuals from getting pneumonia, a common side effect after general anesthesia and abdominal surgery. (The concern being that the pain from the surgical area prevents people from taking deep breaths and this reduces air flow into the lower lungs, sometimes causing collapsed lung tissue, which is then susceptible to the buildup of bacteria, leading to pneumonia).
I always appreciate preventative health measures, and I think it’s great that this advice is given to the patients (and for the record, I did follow all the nurse’s recommendations). However, the instructions from the nurse to do some deep breathing came without instructions, and as a yoga teacher who studies and teaches breathing, it got me thinking how people could use some extra education on the “how to” part since taking a deep breath is not as straight forward as it sounds.
Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals really struggle with taking in a deep breath, at least the way I interpret “deep.” Often, what I notice, is an increase air intake that lands in the upper portion of the chest/lungs, creating a vertical uplift in their posture, with very little to no expansion around the lower ribs and belly. This is how many people breathe—in the upper portion of the lungs only.
More than this, it appears some people have actually lost their ability to take in a breath into the lowest, most voluminous part of the lungs. I say “lost their ability,” because babies and animals naturally take these full, lower lung breaths. That’s how we were born to breathe. But somewhere along the way, often between the ages of 5 and 10, their breathing changes from a lower body breath to an upper body breath.
It can happen because of several things, here are couple… You go to school and you start sitting more, and sitting affects your posture, and posture affects where your breath can travel in the body. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps you start to “suck in our gut”, maybe because we become self conscious of our stomachs or just because we feel it’s something we should do to look better. Tightening your stomachs is also associated with a bracing stance, preparing for action or for safety during times of vulnerability and stress, and you do this as a response to perceived physical and/or emotional threat. Over time, this action of perpetually tightening your stomach can become unconscious and habitual. If this is the case, and for many of you it is, being advised take a “deep breath” won’t be enough. If you want to access the largest part of your lungs, it may actually require training in how to break this habit.
Breathing down into the lower portion of the lungs is best exercised through a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. (Sometimes known as abdominal or belly breathing). One of the things that helped me truly access this type of breathing was to come back to my anatomy knowledge and create a visual in my mind of the body’s main breathing muscle—the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in the diaphragm contracts (flattens out), pressing down towards the abdominal organs, and when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome shape inside the rib (thoracic) cavity. To visualize this a little further have a look at this quick video demonstrating the action of the diaphragm in breathing. Diaphragm movement video
Coming back to our “sucking in our guts” phenomenon, it makes sense that if you have a tight belly, then the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera (guts) drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. So a relaxed abdomen is essential in taking a natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breath. (Below you will find a free handout with step by step instructions on learning to breathe this way).
There is more to this diaphragmatic breathing than just better lung volume. When we breathe with good diaphragmatic movement, the up and down action of the diaphragm stimulates blood vessels and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. One in particular is the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the relaxation portion of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is stimulated, the body produces chemical messengers and signals blood pressure receptors to promote resting, digestion, and relaxation. Studies are showing there is a feedback loop in the body that with long diaphragmatic breaths, the greater the movement of the diaphragm, which in turn increases stimulation of the PNS. In this way, simple diaphragmatic breathing is an effective tool in helping to calm and ease stress, improve digestion, and immune functioning.
The opposite is also true. When a person is stuck in the habit of shallow, upper chest breathing, with minimal diaphragmatic movement, the body perceives this as being in a state of emergency or threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This results in a cascade of events such as elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, impaired digestion and impaired immune functioning. A simple change in your breathing is a gateway to better physiological and emotional health.
So if you are ever given the advice to “take a deep breath,” know that it is not just trying to get more air into your lungs. Adding diaphragmatic movement to your breathing can have all sorts of health benefits. It just takes a little practice.
Feeling stressed or anxious? Here’s something to try
Breath work (known as pranayama in yoga) is a very effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, and calm a turbulent mind. Conscious breathing works by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), and by helping your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) to become more flexible. This flexibility is essential to turning off the stress response when it’s not needed.
Here’s a simple, effective practice to get these results:
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor (or put a pillow under your knees). Rest your hands on your belly, just beneath your front ribs. As you breathe in and out through your nose (lips together but jaw relaxed) attempt to fill your belly into your hands and then gently relax your belly down as you exhale. As you practice this belly-filling breath, count how many seconds it takes for your inhale and how many seconds for your exhale. After a few breaths, see if you can get your exhales to last a little bit longer than your inhales… the hope is to gradually slow your breath, with extra emphasis on slowing the exhales.
Set a timer for 5 minutes to start, or just breath for as long as you need, in order to feel more calm and peaceful. The more often you practice, the more results you’ll feel. Remember to also practice patience and be gentle and kind with yourself. One conscious breath at a time.
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