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April 11, 2016

What, in Goddess’ name, does that yoga teacher mean when she tells you to breathe? Obviously you are already breathing--otherwise you’d be dead.

Usually what she means is to breathe ujjayi , the ocean-like sound at the back of the throat that is a little bit like whispering. This style of breathing is usually intended for the more athletic forms of yoga like Power or Vinyasa, but I’ve heard teachers instructing it in slower classes, too, like Hatha or even Yin. It’s become a ubiquitous way to breathe. To be honest, I do it now whenever I feel myself getting a bit stressed out--even while sitting on the bus.

Most teachers, especially in a faster-paced class, don’t have the time to actually explain what ujjayi means or how to do it beyond the common instruction to constrict the back of your throat a little bit to make that whispering sound. That instruction can be helpful, but ujjayi is about so much more than that.

For me, ujjayi , which means Victorious or Warrior Breath in Sanskrit, is not a constriction --it shouldn’t create tension, and it actually doesn’t need to be that loud. Ujjayi actually starts much deeper than the throat, way down low in the pelvic floor. There is a subtle engagement of the muscles of the pelvic floor that is carried up along the deep core line all the way into the soft palate, which is lifting slightly in concert with the pelvic floor. There is a literal and energetic connection between the throat and the pelvic floor. You can feel this if you tense up your pelvic floor muscles, as if you had to pee, and you’ll notice that your jaw will probably tighten up, too. Relax either the jaw or the pelvic floor and the other one will usually follow.

Working with tightening or constriction can be a helpful way to feel those muscles in the first place, but again, the engagement here shouldn’t cause tension. The engagement from the pelvic floor through to the throat should feel expansive and actually create space. When done this way, ujjayi can actually help relax the jaw.

The energetic direction of the inhale breath moves upward and expands out on all sides, widening the ribs with the soft palate. Inhaling is like inflating a balloon, or one of those huge parachutes kids would hold in a big circle and float up towards the sky. When we are full of breath, we are like that parachute at its peak.

The energy of the exhale is downward and inward, a collecting back and densifying towards the pelvic floor again. The tiny parachutes at the pelvic floor, the soft palate, and under the ribs rise and fall with the rhythm of the breath. Staying connected to this full bodied rise and fall allows us to stay focused on the breath and keep the mind centred--the whispering sound will often start to happen on its own. That’s the key of the practice; the whispering sound is a byproduct of the rhythm of this expansion and contraction of the breath. That’s what your yoga teacher means when she tells you to breathe.

Julie Peters

Julie Peters. MA, E-RYT 500, is a yoga teacher and writer who runs Ocean and Crow Yoga studio with her mom, Jane. She is the author of the forthcoming book  Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses (Skylight Paths) 2016.

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