Ujjayi Pranayama

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.

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Bhramari Breath (bee breath)

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.

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Belly Breathing to Relax You

130122-022Feeling 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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