How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

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This video is an example of the ujjai breathing technique. We will talk about the subtitles of how we practice this breath.  

Session 4 - Breath

Breath is part of the holy trinity of ashtanga. It is vitally important, so before we learn the technique of breathing used in ashtanga - called Ujjai, we will learn some information about the breath.

Mechanics of Breathing

In yoga, for the most part, we breathe in and out through the nose.  The nose is constructed for breathing/respiration - the breath is filtered and warmed in the nostrils to prepare the breath for the lungs.  Breathing in brings in oxygen and breathing out releases the waste of the breathing process, CO2.  The lungs are divided into two groups - left and right lobes. You have three lobes on the right and two on the left (space for the heart).  Your skin is considered the third lung and the process of perspiration is another way the body clears the waste of the lungs and cools the body.

The breath is intelligent. It deepens when the muscles need more fuel and it decreases in states of rest. The breath responds to the nervous system. When we are keyed up in flight or fight all breath goes to the act of fleeing the scene - it deepens to fuel the muscles of fight or flight (those main muscles being the Psoas and the calves - thing RUN AWAY!). When the nervous system is calm, the breath slows down and becomes subtle and even.

In yoga, we use the breath as a tool for awareness and we work with the breath to promote balance. If we are anxious, restless and tense, we work on promoting grounding, ease and relaxation by slowing down the breath, lengthening the exhales and maintaining the breath in a subtle way. When we are wanting heat, exertion and heightened energy, we deepen the breath’s length and volume.  There are various breathing techniques in yoga for these purposes. In ashtanga, Ujjai (or Victorious Breath) is used. It is a means of controlling the volume and depth of the breath through a subtle constriction of the back of the throat.

The breath is SCALABLE - meaning it can be ramped up or calmed down to help us bring balance and purpose to our energy. In ashtanga, the stays scaled with the intention of the practice. If you intend for your practice to be calm, slow and deliberate - it is managed and reflected in your breath.  If you intend for your practice to be more heated and athletic, it is managed and reflected in your breath.  This is a skillful treatment and practice of ujjai, so we will begin with the basics of ujjai breathing.


The Technique Of Ujjai

When learning to breathe in yoga and meditation, we begin by finding the natural breath.  

Breath Awareness -

Take a seat and once your feel comfortably seated, direct your attention to the rings of your nostrils.


Simply observe the breath in it’s natural state there.


Observe the temperature, texture and characteristics of the breath - no judging, no analysis - just observe - whatever is here is what we are working with and that is perfect. 


Your mind will wander, but once you realize your mind has strayed, replace your awareness on your breath. 


As you become familiar with your natural breath, count the number of beats for the incoming and outgoing breath to see if one side is longer than the other - this is a reflection on the current state of things.  Longer exhales tend to indicate a more relaxed state, while longer inhales indicate a more excited state.


Remember, we are not judging, we are simply figuring out where we are right now. You have to know where you are before you use Waze to get directions to where you are headed.

Right and Left Nostril Energy

When you observe your breath and become familiar with it’s details and characteristics, you will notice that one nostril is dominant.  The brain shifts the dominance of breathing from one to the other every 90 minute to 2-3 hours. It helps give us the fuel we need to match our circadian rhythms.  Other things can effect nostril dominance, like having a deviated septum, nasal congestion and/or illness. 

The right nostril is associated with a more heated, vibrant energy - Yang energy.  

The left nostril is associate with a more cool, calmer energy - Yin energy.

We can do breathing techniques that can help us bring the Yin/Yang balance to help serve us in feeling more balanced overall.

Breath as a Flashlight

The breath is like a flashlight, showing you the condition of your body, energy and mind. It will brush or bump into tension, tenderness, acceptance and resistance. It helps you see what you are taking with you and what needs more attention and compassion. 

Ujjai Directions

  1. To initiate Ujjai, we bring awareness of the breath in the back of the throat. In the natural breath, it is soft and subtle - maybe even barely detectible. 

  2. To engage in Ujjai breathing you will begin to increase the volume of the breath flow in the back of the throat.  It is described as a subtle contraction of the back of the throat (not the entire throat). 

  3. Thinking about the back of the throat as a target for the breath helps us get to that level of subtle breathing without making it too much.

  4. Make the inhales and the exhales the same length in and out.

  5. Find the Right Sound of Ujjai - Ujjai has a sound, but it is not a performance. It is a personal sound. You are inwardly tuned.  If you are practicing with others, your breath should not be a distraction to anyone else. Breath is an anchor of awareness and not a distraction.


What is too much?  When your breath sounds like you are trying to move a coffee cup across a table with your incoming/outgoing breath is too much.  When your breath sounds like you are sawing wood with your breath, that is too much.  I sometimes have students make their breath sound like Darth Vader for the purposes of feeling the texture of Ujjai in a gross or exaggerated way to help locate it, but once you feel the volume shift in the breath, you back off and make it not too much and not too little. It’s like everything in yoga where we find balance. Darth Vader is not the technique.

Breathing too harshly is violent to your nervous system and your mind. Breathing too weakly, will not help you stay focused, build strength or endurance. In fact, the practice will not feel as good when you are doing it too harshly or too weakly. 

Another way to find the technique of Ujjai is to take a mirror in front of your face, breathing through an open mouth, try to fog the mirror on the exhale, but use that same energy for the inhale.  Try it for a couple of breaths. Beware, it can dry your throat and you may cough. Close the mouth and then try it with that same feeling of fogging, but breathing through the nostrils.  Remember not too much and not too little is the technique.

Lastly, we use the inhales to lift and the exhales to release, so the sun salutations will teach you the dance of the body and the breath.

Practice moving with what we have covered so far:

  1. Stand in Mountain Pose and become aware of your breath. Then begin to engage Ujjai. When you become familiar and establish a comfortable cadence, continue..

  2. Inhale - Urdhva Hastasana

  3. Exhale - Uttanasana

  4. Inhale - Ardha Uttanasana

  5. Exhale - Uttanasana

  6. Inhale - Hinging up to Urdhva Hastasana

  7. Exhale - Mountain Pose 

  8. Repeat this sequence two or three times and then pause in Mountain pose and find Samasthitithi. Let go of Ujjai and notice the state of the natural breath. 

I encourage you to play with this and feel the lengthening on the inhales and the release/relaxation on the exhales.  Play with finding same length breath in and out.  Play with deepening the volume and making the volume more subtle and personal.  Learn to recognize what is too much and what is too little. Find what feels just right.