The Real Science of Ujjayi

We love when yoga teachers spread the good word about a breathing practice that can help all of us alleviate a little stress.  That’s why it’s so important that the information we disseminate to hungry ears is accurate and, therefore, safer.  We found this yoga teacher’s advice online and although we like the message, there are a few pointers that need to be ironed out so that the overriding message can be used to its full benefit.  We’ll extract the points that are to be discussed specifically and list them in quotes and bolded text.  But please go to her article to get the full story. Here’s the advice on Ujjayi:

1) It warms the entire body by increasing oxygenation and body-heat.”
Actually if one is doing Ujjayi to get calm and focused, one’s metabolic rate will lower as the breath slows down. Metabolism is what creates body heat as it is a by-product of metabolic reactions.  We don’t recommend trying Ujjayi with a fast rhythm…trust us, it probably won’t feel calming.  But since the metabolic rate lowers, Ujjayi does not increase body heat or oxygen levels.

So does she mean increasing oxygen in the blood? Well, that generally only happens if you increase your aerobic activity and get the heart to pump faster and increase your breathing rate, which will increase the amount of oxygen in the blood (assuming proper circulation). Increasing the level of oxygen in the blood is not always necessary, however. If you are in a static position, your body does not need as much oxygen as it would need if you were to say, run a marathon. So, increasing oxygen in the blood shouldn’t always be the goal. However. that doesn’t mean that Ujjayi breathing isn’t useful.  Let’s say that someone is so tensed up that the process of the breath is a struggle.  A focused breath practice may help relieve that tension and allow the breath to happen more easily. If that happens someone may feel a sense of warmth, which can be attributed to better circulation, both physically (blood) and energetically.

2)  When you are focusing on the three-part breath (belly, upper chest, throat) AND on the sound of engaging your glottis muscles at the back of your throught, your monkey-mind has a harder time interfering with your practice.”
It’s difficult to agree with the three-part breath that is often referred to in pranayama.  Whenever we breathe, air only goes into the lungs. Because of the downward movement of the diaphragm during an inhalation, it is healthy to see belly movement when practicing relaxed breathing (not in all situations or types of breathing), but that is not because you are breathing “with your belly.”  You can read more on that in this past blogpost.  One does have to use the glottis muscles (vocal cords) actively to create the whispered sound that characterizes Ujjayi. But the glottis is not at the back of the throat, it refers to the opening between the vocal cords at the entrance of the larynx.

We do agree that the “monkey-mind” has a much more difficult time interfering when you do this practice and we hope people understand how important that is! The limbic system in our brains is the part associated with our emotions, or more primal urges.  It is related to the prefrontal cortex (which is part of the thinking, or more human brain) in that it modulates those urges. Sometimes an overactive limbic system can interfere with some of our higher functions.  In other, words we can lose our ability to put the brakes on our emotional responses. The prefrontal cortex (the area right behind our “third-eye”, is key to self-regulation and emotional management) is in charge of executive function.  When we practice focused intention with our bodies and movement we are doing if from the prefrontal cortex, like intentionally using the vocal cords to create a sound with controlled breathing. This is how we can gain control over our limbic systems, a.k.a. the “monkey mind.”

Kim, who just became certified in Movement Efficiency Training, will be writing a blog post soon that illuminates more of the theories behind this fascinating neuroscience as it applies to attitudes towards movement.

4) In describing how to practice: “You still engage the back of your thoat, but this time almost like you are snoring.”
As we’ve already covered, the glottis is not in the back of the throat, but you do engage the vocal cords to perform Ujjayi.  This is important to understand, because if you “engage” the back of your throat you might end up constricting it, which would not feel relaxing at all! In fact, throwing in the cue about “almost snoring” is not the best one to use.  Snoring and the noise that accompanies it happens, because airflow is obstructed. This obstruction, at one of its more dangerous and chronic extremes is sleep apnea. This is a serious and dangerous disorder that you don’t ever want to emulate or suggest to the body! This is actually counter to the intention and practice of Ujjayi.  Other than engaging the vocal cords we should not feel constriction when practicing this breath.

5)  Repeat, this time with your mouth closed for both the inhale and the exhale (this keeps the prana circulating in your body).”
Prana is ALWAYS circulating in your body.  It is sanskrit for “vital life force.” as it particularly refers to the breath.  You don’t have to keep it going.  A breathing practice can help you take control of your prana and even increase it, but just as the breath is always there, so is prana.  It is the quality of prana, as with breath, that you can improve.

6) Vinyasa Flow classes are all about linking breath with movement. Although it is challenging to keep up with Ujjayi breathing for the entire class, see if you can bring yourself back to it every time you remember, particularly in challenging poses where you can really benefit from the calming, centering, stabilizing breath.”
Ujjayi is not always appropriate in every movement situation (especially if you are trying to see the belly move).  Different breathe is appropriate in different situations.  As we always say, the idea is to have options.  One will definitely find it difficult to keep up Ujjayi in a flow class that is very fast or  when poses are performed that necessitate core strength and balance.  It’s much more difficult to perform one-legged asanas without an engaged core and it is very difficult to engage your core if you are intent upon a “three-part” Ujjayi breath as described in this article.
The ability to engage your core also protects your back and in some cases can help you breathe more easily and create stability.

But what this teacher points out here is extremely important!  She is illuminating that in times of difficulty, whether emotional, physical (like in a vinyasa class) or mental (like when you are about to speak on stage) we lose awareness of our breath or even stop breathing momentarily.  In these instances it is beneficial to use Ujjayi to remind us not to hold the breath.  This is about increasing your internal awareness so that you can stay grounded and centered when you feel like you are not in control.  Or more so, to feel centered and grounded when we know for sure we aren’t in control!

We are grateful to this yogini for sharing her experience and for reminding us about the importance of pranayama.  We wanted to discuss these points not to be antagonistic or argumentative, but so that yoga can continue to reach people.  In order for that to happen we must all pay attention to the information we use to teach and constantly evaluate it.

So much of what we know about the breath has been taught to us by Leslie Kaminoff.  You can find in him at the Breathing Project in NYC.  Go to his ABC classes or look for him up on youtube.  You can’t find a better source on pranayama and anatomy than him!  Also, if you want a wonderful book to read about neuroscience that is accessible and interesting please check out: Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are, by Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald.

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