Yoga » Ashtanga Yoga » Ujjayi Breath

The Internal World: Breath, Locks, Flow & Gaze

Before beginning to practice, it is necessary to discuss some of the fundamental aspects of Ashtanga Yoga. These elements exist within an unseen world. Without them yoga becomes nothing more than an outward expression of physical movement. When performed correctly these subtle tools allow the practitioner to enter into the mystical realms of prana and experience the subtle wonders of Ashtanga Yoga. These invisible tools are "Ujjayi Breath", "Bandhas", "Vinyasa" and "Drishti".

Ujjayi breathing

"Ujjayi" comes from Sanskrit and means "to be victorious".

Ujjayi breathing is a breathing technique employed in a variety of Taoist and Yoga practices. In relation to Yoga, it is sometimes called "the ocean breathing". Ujjayi is diaphragmatic breath, which first fills the lower belly, rises to the lower rib cage, and finally moves to the upper chest and throat. The unique form of breathing is performed by creating a soft sound in the back of throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. The exhalations and inhalations are equal in duration.

According to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught the creators of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Ujjayi Pranayama is a balancing and calming breath, which increases oxygenation and builds internal body heat. The main idea is to create a rhythm in the breath and ride it gracefully throughout the practice. This sound becomes a mantra to set the mind in focus. We must learn to listen to the breath. It is the guide which will tell us the quality of our practice. If we apply too much effort, the breath will become constricted or forced. With too little focus, the ujjayi breath may be drowned out by the sound of our own thoughts. Maintain awareness upon your breath and every moment becomes a meditation.

Bandhas

Bandhas are a series of internal energy gates or body locks within the subtle body which assist in the regulation of pranic flow (prana - life force).

Mula bandha is the root lock. Mula means also base, beginning, foundation, source. the root referred to here is the root of the spine, the pelvic floor, or more precisely, the center of the pelvic floor, the perineum. It is the muscular body between the anus and the genitals. By slightly contracting the pubo-coccygeal muscle (which controls urine flow and contracts during orgasm as well as assisting in male ejaculation), we create an energetic seal that locks prana into the body and so prevents it from leaking out at the base of the spine. 

Benefits: strengthens the pelvic floor, relieves haemorrhoids and congestion in the pelvic area. Calms the autonomic nervous system, calms and relaxes the mind. On the spiritual level, Mula Bandha activates and purifies the Muladhara Chakra. It awakens dormant consciousness and the Kundalini Shakti (devine spiritual power).

Uddiyana Bandha is the abdominal lock and it means flying upward. Uddiyana Bandha is performed by exhaling fully and then drawing the lower belly inward and upward while simultaneusly lifting the diaphragm. This level of uddiyana is primarily utilized during the exhale retention phase of specialized breath control methods known as pranayama. This full level of engagement is not possible to maintain throughout practice due to the inability to inhale while total uddiyana bandha is engaged. The level of uddiyana we should hold for the duration of our practice is more subtle.

Benefits: activates the Manipura Chakra and solar plexus, stimulates intestinal activity and helps relieve constipation, stimulates the pancreas, strenghtens the immune system, balances the mind, soothes irritability and anger and dispels a depressive mood. perform only on an emty stomach.

Jalandara Bandha is the chin lock. It occurs spontaneously in some asanas such as shoulder stand and prescribed for use in others. It is used extensively for pranayama.

Benefits: improves the ability to retain the breath for a long period of time and develops the ability to concentrate. Beneficial for throut diseases and regulates thyroid function.

Maha Bandha, the great lock is practicing of all three bandhas at the same time. Generally, the breath is held during practice of the Bandhas. Mula Bandha and Jalandara Bandha can be performed after the inhalation as well as after the exhalation. Uddiyana Bandha and Maha Bandha are only performed after the exhalation.

Drishti

Drishti is a point of gaze or focus, yet it has little to do with our physical sight. The real "looking" is directed internally. We may fix our physical sight upon an external object or a specific point on our body, yet truly the drishti is meant to direct our attention to the subtle aspects of our practice, the breath and bandhas as well as the mind. Those of us with sight are easily distracted by our surroundings. Other students in the room, a clock on the wall, or myriad other forms may pull us away from the immediate concerns of practicing yoga with awareness. The drishti is a device designed to balance our internal and external practice. 

There are officially nine drishti points:

Nasagrai: tip of the nose; Ajna Chakra: between the eyebrows; Nabi Chakra: navel; Hastagrai: hand; Padhayoragrai: toes; Parsva Drishti: far to the right; Parsva Drishti: far to the left; Angustha Ma Dyai: thumbs; Urdhva or Antara Drishti: up to the sky