The long and the short of it: On the Ashtanga breath (which, for the record, is not ujjayi!)

Speed limit of 8 via Gary Dincher's Flickr photostream

We ashtangis seem to love talking about the breath as much as we love the rhythmic act of breathing itself. Whether new to the practice or a decades-long practitioner, questions about the right and the wrong of breathing frequently bubble up. Answers to questions about the breath are as varied as the breath itself. Below, I’ve chosen some answers that have helped me get a better feel for this art of breathing.

How long and fast should the breath be?

“Medium” and “breathable,” according to David Garrigues:

Partly it’s going to be based on your mood, or your feeling at the time. It’s going to be based on what the posture is demanding. The point is, the breath is breathable. It’s varying. Guruji, he said that the breath is a medium breath. Which meant that it’s not too long and it’s not too short. It’s not like your best pranayama each vinyasa position — if that was the case, it would take too long; it would become forced, unnatural.

Watch the whole segment here:

Mark Darby says this in an interview posted on Wild Yogi:

Going back to the breath, if you see Jois teaching, in a way he teaches standing postures are slow, the breath is very long, when he comes to do the primary series it gets fast. And then it gets very slow again when it comes to finishing postures, because there is no vinyasa in standing and finishing postures so he makes the breaths longer. But as long as you have full breath and rhythm it doesn’t matter how long you breath.

What is the Ashtanga breath called?

This one seems pretty straightforward, right? The Ashtanga breath is called ujjayi breath, right?

Well . . . no. I was stunned to hear my teacher say this at a workshop last month. It turns out the more accurate way to refer to the breath used in the Ashtanga vinyasa practice is “breathing with sound.”

This revelation rippled a while ago among ashtangis who study in Mysore (or those who closely follow their blogs). I remember reading about it this past winter but I think I chose to not try to read too much into this — not enough context, as Steve at the Confluence Countdown noted at the time.

To catch you up if this is new to you, here is an excerpt of Suzy’s Mysore Blog’s coverage of Sharath’s conference notes from Jan. 8, 2012:

The ujjayi breath – how loud should it be?

Answer – which ujjayi breath? It is not ujjayi – it is just deep breathing with sound that’s all. Ujjayi is a pranayama. It is wrong to say that is ujjayi breath.

In the olden days, Guruji he didn’t understand English very well. You all have different accents. It is very difficult to understand people from New Zealand. So Guruji would say yes it’s ujjayi breath. Sometimes for me it is difficult to understand accents. So like that it became many things [Sharath impersonates Guruji] – ‘oh yeh, yeh, yeh’. If he said ‘okay, okay, okay’ it didn’t mean ‘yes’, it meant ‘I’ll think and tell you’. His heart was like a baby’s heart, his mind like a baby’s mind.

It should be deep breathing with sound. Not shallow breathing. Only the nervous system can purify if the breath goes in deep. Each part of my body can feel that breath, up to my toes. The blood is circulating everywhere. If I just do shallow breath, a dog’s breath [Sharath pants like a dog].

It is especially important in sarvangasana (shoulder stand). Shirshasana (head stand) and sarvangasana are very important – we should do for a long time. Sometimes when you get pain this is all because of not breathing properly. When you are doing kurmasana (turtle posture) your shoulders are like this [Sharath demonstrates hunched shoulders]. Try to relax in asana, try to take long breath.

Something will happen for me if you throw me in the water. The more you relax in water, the more easy it is to do the strokes.

Back in 2011, David Robson was surprised to learn this as well:

On my last trip to Mysore, I heard something new. It was during the weekly conference with Sharath. While talking about the breath during practice, someone mentioned “Ujjayi Breath.” Sharath corrected them, saying Ujjayi is a pranayama, a formal breathing exercise, and then moved on to another topic.

At first, I assumed I had misunderstood what Sharath was saying. I had always thought Ujjayi Breath was one of the key principles of Ashtanga Yoga. Confused, I went to the source, Yoga Mala, by Sri K Pattabhi Jois, to see what he had written more than 50 years ago. To my surprise, there is no mention of Ujjayi Breath with vinyasa. None.

A month later I saw Sharath again. I had the chance to ask him if we do Ujjayi Breath during our asana practice. He said no, explaining that Ujjayi Breath is one of the Pranayama techniques of Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga, Pranayama is begun only when a practitioner has started the Advanced Series. During our asana practice we only do steady and even purakaand rechaka, inhalation and exhalation.

In honor of the lineage of this tradition, I’ve stopped using the word “ujjayi” on this blog and when I teach. But I think until an entirely new generation of ashtangis comes up, the Ashtanga community at large might have to agree to disagree on the label of this breath with sound. My guess is that the first generation of Westerners who were the first to study with Pattabhi Jois will likely continue to use “ujjayi” and make a distinction between ujjayi during asana practice and ujjayi pranayama. (Correct me if I’m wrong on this!) The new generation of authorized teachers are already following Sharath’s lead. It’s all good, though, right? Isn’t this a classic tomato vs. tomahto situation? [At least I hope so, because I really don’t want to go back through two years’ worth of blog posts and change every instance of ujjayi. :-) ]

Or maybe a better analogy would be using a brand name for a generic item — saying “Kleenex” when holding a box of Target’s generic brand tissues isn’t technically correct, but we understand how the product is supposed to be used. The label doesn’t change how useful, powerful and beautiful this breath is.

For no particularly great reason, I’ll let “Speed of Sound” close this post.

>>Read more: More on the Ashtanga breath: What the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā tells us

(Photo credit: “Speed limit 8??” via Gary Dincher’s Flickr photostream)

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