I often get asked the questions around Ujjayi breath as I meet practitioners around the world ‘Why should my Ujjayi be loud?’. This question is often asked because one of my cues is to ‘get your breath up’. So why don’t we do that as I write and you read… Start breathing deeply!
From what I understand from the classical yoga scripture texts is that a practitioner should be able to hear their own breath. In my humble opinion, that simply is not enough. It’s not enough because unless the practitioner is advanced (another humble opinion, if you have less than 10 years of a daily practise, you’re a beginner) the quality of their breath doesn’t quite offer what is entirely accessible from taking a deep breath. The quality of a deep breath is one that is long and audible! If the room is full of deep breathers then you may not hear your own breath! In my own personal practise I aim for 5 breaths per minute.
Ujjayi breathing is a deep and audible breathing technique, requiring practitioners to send the sensation of the breath towards the back of the throat. Ujjayi breath is usually used to enhance self-mastery.
To bring safety and control into an asana practise and prepare the mind for meditation. Often practitioners do not choose to get their breath up, they feel that breathing quietly can be enough. Have you ever noticed that you start to breath deeply and more powerfully when the pose or the sequence gets more intense? Standing poses, such as Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 poses naturally instigate a deeper and often louder breath because the legs actually require the support of the lungs to stay active.
On our latest piece of work on the benefits from breathing, 30 volunteers were asked to practise audible Ujjayi breath with expanding the rib cage (a pranayama unique to Forrest Yoga that maximises thoracic capacity whilst breathing) for 20 non-consecutive minutes per day. This additional move to a deep breath encourages the thoracic cage to move whilst breathing. By expanding the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) the spreading of the diaphragm (which wraps underneath the bottom of the rib cage) creates a larger vacuum which then brings in a deeper inhalation. We took MRI scans and compared our findings to that of the general public. MRI scans were taken at the Newcastle Magnetic Resonance Centre Newcastle University research facility by researcher Paras Patel. What we found was that the volume of the amygdala increased; the corresponding changes were also seen amongst individuals with large social support networks.
All participants were asked to practise for 20 (non-consecutive) minutes per day, every day for 8 weeks. That suggests that practising audible Ujjayi breath with expanding the rib cage enables us to learn how to support ourselves. The average size of the right amygdala was 1437.40mm3(S.D 130.03) and the average size of the left amygdala was 1452.65mm3 (S.D 192.86). Once the volumes from the meditation participants were collected, they were also averaged, with the right amygdala volume averaging 1741.80mm3 (S.D 136.64) and the left amygdala 1651.60 mm3 (S.D 86.98). The right amygdala showed a statistical significant change in volume when applying both Mann-Whitney U test and two-sample t-test where the left showed no statistical significant change. One of the functions of the amygdala is to enable us to respond to threats and stressful situations.
There is evidence to suggest that Mindfulness practises reduces the volume of the amygdala which suggests that Mindfulness practitioners stimulate the amygdala less than the average person who doesn’t know how to manage their stress. We know that by taking a deeper breath we are more likely to live from a calmer state. There is a difference between appearing calm on the outside and actually being calm on the inside. Cortisol is obviously spotted to the trained eye, but that’s another article. This stress hormones is pumped out when we go into our fight-or-flight state, is also related to having a shallow breath, anxiety and other lists of stressful symptoms.
So taking a quiet breath and appearing in control on the outside doesn’t actually equate to taking a deeper breath and being truly calm on the inside.
Taking a deep breath in uncomfortable situations is also a sign that a practitioner is willing to be vulnerable. A quality that demonstrates true internal strength. I don’t know how to validate the volume of each individual yoga practitioners breathing and what that means within the context of a short article. That would take more research and also yoga is yoga, which reminds us that people are individuals but I can say that we know that by increasing the volume this self-support mechanism develops. After all, Ujjayi breathing is used to enable practitioners to control our bodies and our minds. We all know that by getting our breath UP we also breath DEEPER! If this helps students to lengthen their breath then they are practicing pranayama in the way that ancient sages intended. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Mindful-Exercise-%7C-Jambo-Truong http://tinyurl.com/nrdxyu3 Bickart, K. C., Wright, C. I., Dautoff, R. J., Dickerson, B. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2011). Amygdala volume and social network size in humans. Nat Neurosci, 14(2), 163–164. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.2724