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The ins and outs of yoga breathing

From: Kathy's Yoga Blog,

The ins and outs of yoga breathing

Ujjayi is a breathing technique that you'll encounter at some point in your yoga adventures, whether you know it or not! The problem is, that in most classes neither the technique, nor its benefits are explained in full, so to get you clued up and top of the class, here's the low-down on the fine art of breathing.

Taking a deep breath

Ujjayi translates as ‘the victorious breath’. Sometimes called the ‘ocean breath’ or ‘Darth Vader’ because of the sound made by the air as it comes in through the constricted space, breathing in this way requires a partial closing of the glottis (the vocal folds and the space between them) in the back of the throat.

As the throat is narrowed, the airway becomes smaller and the result of the passing air is a rushing sound. The sound can be loud and forceful or gentle and very quiet, but the pitch should be uniform and not jerky or jarring. The length and speed of the breath is then controlled by the diaphragm, making the all important muscle even stronger with practice.

Breathing out...

For ujjayi novices, the easiest way to learn how to do this is to open your mouth and make a forceful breath with a huff sound – the same noise you make when you blow on a window to try and fog it up. Try it a second time, this time closing the mouth halfway through and you’ll have mastered the exhale.

...and in

To replenish your airways, keep the back of the throat closed and inhale. Continue for several breaths, then, once you're comfortable with this technique, add a gentle pause of 1-2 seconds after the inhale, and after the exhale.

Why ujjayi?

Ujjayi is one of the few breathing techniques that can be practised throughout the duration of a class. It also has a heating (ushna, in yogic language) effect on the body so the more forceful the ujjayi, the stronger the heat, which in turn gets the body warmed up and ready for deeper asana practice.

On a deeper level, this breath stimulates the vagus nerve - an important nerve that runs through the lungs, the stomach, and has an effect on the heart. Gentle stimulation of this nerve relaxes the heart rate and normalises blood pressure.

Air Ways

Ujjayi breathing has many variations. For example, you can breathe in with the ujjayi breath, then close the right nostril with the thumb and breathe out through the left nostril, which is only partly closed. Then inhale through both nostrils again with ujjayi, but this time exhale through the right, completing one round. This technique is called an anuloma ujjayi or ‘with the grain’ and helps the practitioner focus, slow down and relax via slow exhalation.

The other technique is called ‘viloma ujjayi, or ‘against the grain’, where the trick is to breathe in through one nostril and breathe out with ujjayi breath. This technique is used to help slow and lengthen the inhalation.

In both variations with the nostril techniques, there is a rule to remember: when we regulate the breath through the nostril, we don't constrict the throat at the same time. The right way is to valve at the throat, and then valve at the nostril, alternately.

Although the total length of time for a single round of breathing will vary from person to person, certain durations of inhalation, pause and exhalation will influence you in different ways:

  • Inhale > Exhale

Holding the breath after inhalation gives you an energising boost of oxygen

  • Inhale < Exhale

Holding the breath moderately after exhaling relaxes the body

What to do

A worthy goal is to do a breathing practice for five minutes, slowing the duration of the inhale and exhale, little by little. Over a period of weeks and months, you can then comfortably slow the breath more and more. This will have a positive effect on your mind and stress levels, your immunity, and your ability to respond, instead of react, to the world.

What not to do

Never force or strain the breath, never inhale for longer than you exhale and don't hold your breath for a longer period than your exhale either – remember this is for initiated yogis, not for the beginner.

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Kathy Jones works with clients to customise short yoga programs to meet their needs through Charym in Litchfield, CT. She teaches teaches therapeutic group classes including evidence-based yoga for chronic back pain, yoga for neck and shoulder tension, sleep yoga and fertility yoga, as well as offering private sessions. To arrange an appointment or to see the current class schedule, visit or email

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