WHAT IS THE UJJAYI BREATH AND SHOULD I PRACTICE IT?
In Hatha Yoga, we practice a series of physical exercises intended to purify the subtle energy channels in our body/being, so that we may one day experience a state of non-dual unity, that is, a oneness with the divine energy that pervades all things.
The practice begins with mindful, physical exercises designed to open our body and free energy movement in the body/being. As our energy system awakens and clears, we may be ready to practice pranayama. The literally translation of the Sanskrit word “pranayama” is the “extension” or “drawing out” of prana, that is, of life force. It is a series of breathing exercises geared to broaden and expand our field of awareness, so that we may continue an even subtler purification of the body/being.
Through my years of teaching YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine, I have noticed that some students and teachers who have come to my classes and workshops tend to use a particular breathing technique known as ujjayi breathing during their practice. Translated as the “victorious” breath, ujjayi is intended to aid in yogic mastery, which ultimately is over the ego and our illusory perception of divisiveness.
Some Hatha yoga styles such as Ashtanga and Vinyasa encourage the practice of ujjayi breathing even at the beginning stages. It is said to improve concentration, instill endurance, generate internal body heat intended to cleanse the organs.
In working with and witnessing the energy system of many ujjayi practitioners over the years, I have generally noted a force, however subtle, applied to the body to create the sound associated with this breath. Noting the use of this imposed constriction, I have found people who practice breathing this way display several similar tendencies: an energy systems that is usually overheated; minds that are often overly keen; muscles toned yet energy systems either disconnected from the body or densely stuck in specific aggregate-like patterns; a practice overly driven. In such situations, I generally discourage the use of ujjayi breathing, and encourage instead the subtle application of the humble question: “What is generating my desire for ujjayi in the first place?”
The energetics of the ego are tricky and persuasive. We can fool others and ourselves into believing that we are evolving spiritually, when in fact, we are growing more attached. This is one of the greatest shadows of the Hatha Yoga practice. (The trickiness of the ego on the spiritual path is also the central theme of my new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”.) This is why any form of pranayama is best practiced under the careful guidance of a skilled and awakened yogi who has mastered the treacherous territory of the unseen realms.
I will share more on this topic next week.