As a Yoga teacher, if there was one Yoga technique I could teach everyone, it would be the breathing technique known as Ujjayi Breath. It has an almost immediate effect of calming the mind and slowing down one’s experience of time. It does this by stimulating the Parasympathetic Nervous System, also known as the “rest & restore” department of the body. This breath can be practiced pretty much anytime, while sitting, standing, walking, cycling, driving and even underwater.
To give you an idea what it looks and sounds like, here’s a 1.5 minute video that demonstrates the Ujjayi breath.
From different teachers around the world, I’ve heard different descriptions of Ujjayi breath – from sighing with your mouth closed, to fogging up a mirror, to sipping the breath in and out through the throat, to Darth Vader breath. Any of which might convey the idea to you, but the simplest description I can offer is that it’s the same constriction in your throat as you would make in a whisper. The lips are gently closed as the breath moves in and out through the nose. Aim for a soft, internal hissing sound barely audible to the person next to you. Though some schools advocate loud Ujjayi breathing, it is advisable to avoid straining your breath and vocal chords.
The Wanderer in Each of Us
The power of Ujjayi breath lies in its direct effect on the Vagus nerve, which happens to be the longest nerve of the Autonomic Nervous System. The Latin word Vagus means “wandering”, and the words vagrant and vagabond are derivatives of the same word. The Vagus nerve earned its name by wandering from its origin in the brain to all of these organs: the gut, heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (females), neck, ears, and tongue. It has something of the traveller instinct, you might say 🙂 The kind of nerve that decided to go everywhere and juggle various jobs, coz ‘settling down’ just didn’t seem exciting enough.
Sanskrit for victory, Ujjayi breath is also called the Victory Breath, the Psychic Breath or the Ocean Breath. It encourages the lungs to expand in all directions, and the chest expands and moves up like in a victorious warrior.
The more you practice, your Ujjayi breaths will get longer and more rhythmic, like rolling ocean waves. Swelling, rising and tumbling at their own pace and peace. Use your palms to close your ears as you Ujjayi and you will hear the sound of the ocean in a gentle tide. The waves rolling in the distance, reminding us to breathe like we mean it.
The Science – What Happens in Vagus
…does NOT stay in Vagus. This nerve is responsible for heart rate and for conveying messages from the gut to the brain. It is the longest nerve in the autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system and also the most important nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-restore department). The Vagus nerve is where science finds the mind-body connection known to Yogis from internal experiments centuries ago. Think of it as the wiring under your gut feelings and mental states.
According to the Gheranda Samhita, the Yogic text from the late 17th century, Ujjayi breath soothes the nervous system, calms the mind, slows down the heart rate and lowers the blood pressure. And today in mainstream medicine, Vagus Nerve Stimulation is a treatment that has been found effective in cases of depression and epilepsy.
In my own experiments, I have found that it helps me hold the Asanas longer with less effort. It does make my nervous system a lot less ‘nervous’ anytime I try it. Also helps turn my Asana practice into a moving meditation.
No matter what kind of Yoga floats your boat, breathing with intent and focus is what makes your practice Yoga and not just a workout. Breathing is at once our most fundamental and most under-used life skill. Every breath brings a chance to hone that skill. Experiment and experience for yourself the benefits of Ujjayi and let me know your thoughts in the comments!