When practicing hatha yoga, we want to stay focused, but all too often our minds wander. Suddenly, we’re not doing yoga so much as we’re moving aimlessly while thinking about what happened earlier at work, and our practice feels automatic and purposeless. Correlating the breath with each movement in and out of asana gives our minds a drishti, or focal point. One very popular pranayama, or breathing technique, is called ujjayi, or “victorious breath.”
Ujjayi breath is created by constricting the throat as the breath moves strongly in and out. To practice it, start by opening your mouth wide and exhaling loudly. Can you make a similar noise on your inhale? Now close your mouth and try re-creating the sound. Your belly, ribcage, and chest should all be rising and falling free as your diaphragm works to bring air into and out of the lungs. The inhalation should be the same length as the exhalation; if it isn’t, spend some time bringing the counts closer to equal.
See if you can find the rhythm: as you inhale, the breath goes down the back of your constricted throat to your lungs. As you exhale, the breath leaves the body through your nasal passages. Are there ripples or currents in your breathing? Can you smooth out each inhale and exhale?
Spend a few moments doing this and see how it affects your body, mind, and spirit. Ujjayi warms the body (which is one reason why it is used at the beginning of asanapractice) while it calms and focuses the mind (which is another reason.) As you practice, do you find yourself losing the sound? This is normal. Simply bring it back into the moment; as you continue to use this breathing technique, your focus will sharpen.
Although this form of breathing has been referred to as “Darth Vader breath”, the practice does not in actuality need be that forceful. In some traditions, it’s considered appropriate for ujjayi to be loud, but in others, etiquette suggests that the person on the next mat over should not be able to hear your ujjayi breathing. A better way to think of ujjayi is “ocean breath”, as it provides a calming personal sound track for your vinyasa practice. Victorious breath allows us to find and link the rhythm of each physical movement to the breath and experience asana as a tide of motion: building, cresting, and retreating. In this way, it helps us internalize the cyclical nature of life itself.