The Anatomy and Technique of Ujjayi Breathing

This item is a discussion of the anatomy and technique of ujjayi breathing.  Ujjayi is the recommended breathing technique for our power vinyasa and power Pilates practices.  It is a conscious form of breathing and is more than simply breathing through your nose.  The anatomy and technique of ujjayi breathing will give you power in your yoga practice and, as we will see, in other parts of your life too!

The technique for ujjayi is to draw inwards at your abdomen to initiate an exhalation.  Keep that abdominal firmness throughout class.  If you suck your belly in hard you will find the action tiring and unsustainable.  You will also restrict the capacity for your diaphragm to relax and your breathing will become stuck.  The abdominal engagement is necessary but must be managed without excess.

Your diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that is suspended from a central tendon in your chest cavity.  It essentially forms a horizontal layer of muscle separating the thoracic and abdominal cavities in your torso.  The contraction of your diaphragm causes it to dome upwards and compress into your thoracic cavity.  This action presses into your lungs from below and squeezes air out of your lungs, through your trachea and out of your nose.

Contracting the intercostal muscles of your ribcage assists in the compression of your lungs on exhalation.

The muscle groups referred to (the abdominals but especially the transverse abdominals that run around your mid-section like a cummerbund, your diaphragm and your inter-costals) are your primary respiratory muscles.  It is important not to labour your breathing using smaller, auxiliary breathing muscles around your neck and upper chest.

It is also important to realise an exhale is an upward movement, unlike many other excretory functions which are downward.  Sometimes people without awareness about the effective functioning of their breath try to force an exhale by compressing their chest downwards.  Understand that your breath requires contraction from the base of your torso upwards to create an effective exhale.

Once you have exhaled there is an area of low pressure in your lungs.  We are taught from early in our lives that nature abhors a vacuum.  Air from a higher pressure zone outside your body will naturally flood back in to your lungs as you relax the contractions associated with your exhale.  Inhalations are, contrary to the concept of “sucking in big ones”, relatively passive actions compared with exhalations.

Regardless of the relaxation necessary in the muscles of your ribcage and diaphragm, maintain abdominal toning throughout both exhalation and inhalation during ujjayi breathing.

There is another aspect to ujjayi breath that causes many students some difficulty but it is an essential element of the practice.  In your throat there are two passages: one called the œsophagus and the other called the trachea.  The former is designed for the passage of food and drink to your stomach.  The latter is reserved for air to your lungs.

There is a small valve called the epiglottis that closes off the trachea when you are eating to prevent aspiration (the drawing of food or liquid into your lungs) and opens during breathing.  Below the epiglottis in the trachea is the glottis which comprises your vocal cords and the slit between them.  Small muscles in your throat allow you to narrow the passage of the glottis.  This causes air passing through the glottis to activate your vocal cords creating a sighing, oceanic-type sound.

During ujjayi breathing, maintain a slight engagement of the muscles of the glottis so that your breath, both on inhalation and exhalation, creates this sound.  You may have heard Hamish speak of breathing as if breathing through a small aperture or puncture at the front of your throat.  This is a cue to activate the muscles of your glottis and create the sound of ujjayi.

During ujjayi breathing, keep your mouth closed and allow air to pass in and out of your nostrils.  There is no need to use your nasal muscles to sniff air in or snort air out.  Keep your nose and its muscles relaxed.

There are two Sanskrit words to describe ujjayi breathing: dirga, which means long, and suksma, which means smooth.


The Reasons for Ujjayi Breathing

Ujjayi is a very effective means of respiration.  It directs breath into your lungs rather than allowing air to be diverted through your œsophagus into your stomach.  As soon as you open your mouth to breathe your body senses that it may be going to receive food or drink and the epiglottis starts to close the passage to your trachea.  Air sucked in through your mouth will get to your lungs but some will get to your stomach as well.  This can leave your stomach feeling bloated – like the bag of a set of bagpipes that has been inflated ready to play.  No oxygen or energetic uptake takes place from air in your stomach.  It is only in your lungs that oxygen and the mystical energy of prana/xi/life force is taken into your body.

During a strong, flowing power yoga practice you need oxygen and vital energy to fuel your body and focus your mind.  Use ujjayi to efficiently and effectively convert oxygen into your blood stream and infuse every cell in your body with life force.

The tempo of ujjayi breathing is naturally quite slow.  This gives you time to be complete and effective in vinyasa practice in taking a pose in the course of an inhalation, the next pose in the course of an exhalation and the next in the course of an inhalation and so on.  Students who feel rushed or who struggle to coordinate movement to their breathing will benefit from developing ujjayi breathing as it will create space and time for the transitions from one pose to another.

Ujjayi does not occur by accident.  Breathing will take place without conscious awareness – it is an essential life support function that is regulated in the first instance by your reptilian brain – but you can lift your breathing to the conscious level of mind and direct it.  By directing your breathing with your conscious mind you eliminate the distractions of thinking and create a meditative state of mind.

Mouth breathing is a pattern of breathing that your body associates with stress and danger.  It is a pattern of breathing that triggers the sympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the generation of hormones and neuro-transmitters that create stress conditions in your body such as cortisol and adrenaline.  It also tends to create acidic conditions in your body which are often associated with illness and disease.

Breathing through your nose triggers the para-sympathetic side of your nervous system and hormones such as serotonin are generated which create conditions of relaxation and calm in your body.

Margo Pigeon

Ujjayi breathing, therefore, has the capacity to give you energy and power throughout a strong vinyasa practice while at the same time offering you clarity and calmness in your state of mind and relaxation and ease in your state of body.  My question is, why would you not use ujjayi breathing?!

Ujjayi breathing cultivates a state of mind based on inner awareness rather than external focus.  With inner awareness you will realise your own strength and will access a sense of esteem and power that will leave you feeling victorious.  The victory is not over anyone else – we can all share in this victory.  The triumph is over the doubt, anxiety and careworn state that comes from too much external focus.

We get lots of feedback from those who have embraced ujjayi breathing about how beneficial they find it to be, not just during vinyasa practice but when hiking up river beds in search of salmon, climbing mountains or running long races.  Here is an example from an Apollo Power Yoga student who ran the Kepler Challenge, a 60 km plus mountain run:

I had a blast doing the Kepler – it was the most challenging thing I have ever done, but I did it, I lived the dream. And the yoga ended up having a bigger impact that I expected. The flexibility & recovery were obviously vital – but the breathing also turned out to be part of what got me around. I lost control of my asthma 3/4 of the way through, and the only way I could control my coughing was by breathing through my nose, which is not normal for my running. But I’ve had hours and hours of practice and I did it for an hour on Saturday, getting my lungs to calm down again. I’m sure I would not have made it around without ujjayi breathing. So your training had unexpected benefits. Yoga is a wonderful complement to distance running, it shortens the recovery time allowing more intense training. And now it’s helping the post-race recovery so I can get back out soon.