By Saraswathi Vasudevan
Ujjayi pranayama is a very effective way to increase the energy level in the body, says Saraswathi Vasudevan
Do you know that a habitual low energy state can be caused by improper breathing? Either we are too busy, stressed out, or holding a bad posture (back stooped, chest caved in and constricted, with the lower abdomen pushed out) creating a shallow breath restricted to the upper chest, even using neck and shoulder muscles! Many times you may be even holding your breath. If you do notice – right now – straighten up your back, and start breathing more deeply and fully. You will feel a dramatic shift in your energy levels and even your state of mind!
Today, we will look at ways of extending the exhalation and inhalation through a simple pranayama technique called Ujjayi. In fact, in asana practice we regulate the breath in all movements using the Ujjayi technique. When you simply lengthen your breath step by step, there is an automatic constriction created in the throat, narrowing of the passage at the glottis creating a gentle hissing sound. Initially you can feel it easily during exhalation, but through practise, can achieve this hissing sound also during inhalation. To practise this technique, imagine smelling a rose through your throat or whispering gently with your mouth closed; you will begin to hear the hissing sound! Then just begin to extend it. The flow has to be smooth and uniform.
Ujjayi in Sanskrit means “that which masters the upper portion (of the body)” – particularly clearing and strengthening the throat and upper chest. The sound in the throat helps your mind to focus on the breath and anchor itself to the present moment. The more subtle the sound, the better the quality of control. So Ujjayi breathing (when it is subtle and long) helps the mind to calm down. Once you are able to lengthen the breath using Ujjayi pranayama, you are ready to use simple ratios in breathing to bring more attention to the breath, focus the mind and to assess progress in practice. Start with a simple 1:2 ratio in pranayama using Ujjayi. As you inhale, count mentally 1-2-3. Pause for one second. Exhale for six seconds, pause one second. Do this a few times and raise the ratio to 4:8. You can progress to 5:10, 6:12 and so on. Later you can start working on extending inhalation and exhalation keeping them equal, 4:4, 5:5, 6:6 staying for a few breaths with each ratio. Remember to pause for one-two seconds after each inhalation and exhalation. Pay attention to the quality of Ujjayi. The sound of the breath in your throat should be audible only to you, not to the person next to you! When the sound of Ujjayi is very loud, the breath is not well regulated and controlled, straining the throat, heating up the body and making the breath regulation inefficient. It can also agitate the mind.
A minimum of 20 breaths with equal ratio of inhalation and exhalation will make a significant shift in your energy levels and state of mind. Because you are regulating the breath at the throat, counting the length of inhalation and exhalation, pranayama will become a very engaging practice making your mind more attentive and ready for deeper practices like meditation. It will improve your health by strengthening all your physiological processes as well.
If you have cough or sore throat, Ujjayi is contraindicated as it can irritate the throat and trigger cough. Asthmatics who find that coughing can trigger an asthmatic attack, have to use Ujjayi with caution even though Ujjayi can be a great technique for people with asthma to improve and regulate their breathing.
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