Every once in a while students on our teacher training courses pose the question on why Ujjayi is not included in the asana practice.Since some of them have attended yoga classes prior to the TTC, where Ujjayi is an absolute must and not breathing heavily with a rattling sound is nearly considered a sacrilege, there is a growing assumption that Ujjayi is meant to be an implicit component of asanas and not incorporating it, is just downright wrong.Are we guilty of insulting the tradition of yoga by not teaching asanas along with the Ujjayi breath?The answer is: No, and I’ll explain why in a minute. Please bear with me, as we need to go all the way back to the traditional texts on Hatha yoga, so we can unravel the mystery of the absence of Ujjayi in classical asana practice and Rajadhiraja yoga.Just to rule out any misunderstanding from the outset – we love Ujjayi. Just not when it accompanies asana practice. We teach Ujjayi and other advanced pranayama techniques on our advanced course in a safe manner, under supervision of an experienced teacher. And this really is key: safety and appropriateness.
What is Ujjayi?
First of all, what is the Ujjayi breath? It is a pranayama technique. And as with all pranayama techniques, it can be practiced by all, but should be learned individually from a master or in supervised group practice. As a long term daily practice individual guidelines are a must.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the traditional authoritative texts on yoga states: “All diseases are eradicated by the proper practice of pranayama and all diseases arise through improper practice.”
Just take that in for a moment – yes, if practiced incorrectly or by the ‘wrong ‘ person, it can seriously harm the practitioner.
Here is how: the lungs, heart and nerves are normally strengthened with regulated and suitable pranayama, BUT weakened with improper practice.
Furthermore, it affects the mind: by incorrect or excessive practice one’s mental quirks/tendencies and even nervous tics could become exaggerated.
Complications and troubles from improper practice may arise without any warning, hence it is imperative to know when to practice, what and how. Every practice should be treated with respect and caution.
Another text, the ‘Yoga Chudamani Upanishad’ states: “ Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly, the prana should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner.”
In order to qualify for pranayama, one must first practice asanas for a certain amount of time. And to reap the full benefits of asanas, one must practice kriyas, (the yogic cleansing techniques), regularly fast on Ekadashi (11th day after the full and new moon) and follow a sattvic yogic diet. Those are the preliminaries for pranayama practice.
When the kriyas are followed by asanas, the vital energy of the body (pranah) is able to penetrate each and every nerve, cell and pore of the body.
The ‘Gheranda Samhita’, another important text, states:
“One who takes up yoga practices without observing moderation of diet, obtains no benefit – he gets various diseases.”
Apart from the above, there are many more guidelines, which are taught to each individual practitioner, and they include: the time of the day when the techniques should be practiced, the posture to be assumed, the environment in which it should be practiced, the best type of clothing to wear while practicing and several other important instructions.
In Ujjayi we contract the glottis and breathe through the throat (producing a light snoring sound). It leads to subtle mental states and can be practiced in conjunction with meditation and bandhas (as instructed by the master), but never in conjunction with asanas. Not a single traditional text on yoga, advises to use the Ujjayi breath while practicing asanas.
The benefits of Ujjayi are numerous: it soothes the nervous system, calms the mind and increases psychic sensitivity. It relieves insomnia, slows down the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
It is a tranquilizing pranayama, but it also has a heating effect, stimulating the process of oxidation.
What is oxidation?
The process of oxidation in the human body damages cell membranes, such as cellular protein, lipids and DNA. When oxygen metabolizes it creates free radicals, which steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage. The body can cope with some free radicals and needs them for effective maintenance, but an overload of free radicals is one of the major causes of heart and liver disease and some cancers triggered by damaged DNA.
Oxidation also cause degenerative diseases such as the deterioration of the eye lens causing blindness, arthritis, damage to the brain nerve cells leading to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, acceleration of the aging process and the list goes on.
Hence, the excessive practice of Ujjayi, as in practicing it for the duration of an entire 90 minute asana class, is harmful, to say the least.
Ujjayi in yoga therapy
As with most other pranayama techniques, Ujjayi has a specific therapeutic application with very specific effects as well as contraindications.
The contraindications include the following: those who are highly introverted and have very low blood pressure should practice Ujjayi only under the careful guidance of a master or yoga therapist for a short span of time, since Ujjayi may cause further introversion and lowering of blood pressure.
Now let’s look at the more subtle aspects of the practice.
We practice yoga postures or asanas with the aim to eventually experience a state of spiritual ONENESS.
Asana practice awakens and clears our energy system and we become ready to practice pranayama. Complete beginners to yoga should only be taught simple breathing exercizes, not any pranayama techniques.
Is Ujjayi suitable for beginners?
In the Ashtanga and Vinyasa styles of yoga, even at the beginning stages, Ujjayi is encouraged and taught with the narrative that it will enhance concentration and endurance, that it will generate internal body heat and cleanse the organs. Hence, those keen students strain and stress to breathe as advised.
Many Ujjayi practitioners apply a force, however subtle, to the body to create the sound associated with this breath.
This enforced narrowing/compression when practiced excessively may lead to mild or severe disturbances. It may overheat the system, agitate the mind and disconnect the physical body from the energy systems. Rather than helping us to evolve spiritually it will become a cause of strengthening our attachments.
That’s why any form of pranayama is best practiced under the scrupulous guidance of an adept teacher.
Rather than peace and dissolution of ego, the attachment with which this breath is often practiced, creates strain in the physical and subtle bodies. Instead of developing more humility, the ego’s vanity is boosted. It leads to energetic blockages, which are not easy to undo.
The importance of Sushumna Nadii
In order to gain the benefits that come with the practice of Ujjayi, the sushumna nadii, the central nerve channel running from the Muladhara all the way to the Sahasrara chakra, must be cleared first. If it isn’t, and the energy is not flowing easily, the heat created by Ujjayi breathing will dominate around the lower brain and overheat the reptilian or primitive centers of the brain, strengthening those exact tendencies yogis attempt to rise above, i.e. the tendencies of greed, covetousness and selfishness.
Ujjayi should be taught as a separate practice to advanced students under the guidance of a skilled teacher or in a therapeutic setting, never as a regular addition to asanas in public yoga classes.
Where can you learn more about this?
How to practice advanced pranayamas is one of the highlights on our 300h advanced teacher training courses.
We also teach about the power of Kumbhaka or breath retention. A practice that is not well understood in the Western yoga community, even though it has a long-standing tradition in classical yoga.
If you are interested in gaining a comprehensive understanding of yoga (not just asanas) as an aspiring yoga teacher or would like to widen your horizons as an existing yoga teacher, you may consider attending one of our 200h and 300h courses in South India, respectively. We also invite any students who would like to attend the programme simply for self-development or because they would like to deepen their personal practice.