To Ujayii or not to Ujayii, that is the question

While it may not be making the headlines of the New York Times yoga article, a subject is floating around what folks apparently refer to as the “Cybershala.” That subject? How you are supposed to breath during Ashtanga.

Seem simple enough? We’ve all been told to Ujayii breath, right?

Well, that’s starting to unravel. Sort of.

The trigger on this seems to have been Sharath’s recently saying that Ujayii breathing wasn’t what Guruji was talking about when he was teaching. Ujayii is a pranayama technique that involves an exhale that’s twice the length of the inhale.

Grimmly was smart enough to reach out toward the source on this. He emailed Nancy Gilgoff and got a response. It is at his blog, and I’ll just pull a tiny bit:

i never NEVER heard guruji say the word ujayii.   he said to breath, “free breathing” is how he would say it.   “breath with sound” was another of his pet phrases….perhaps this is why some interpreted it as ujaii….which is incorrect as ujayii is a pranayama where the exhale is twice as long as the inhale….we are to bring the inhale/exhale to the same length so ujayii is the wrong word to use when describing the breath in the ashtanga practice. 

She goes on to say that she’s happy Sharath brought this up as it is something that needs clarification.

For me (and I think I speak for Bobbie here, too), the issue isn’t much of an issue. We understand that when we’re being told to Ujayii we really are being told to “breath deep.” It is an equal in and out, and one that should fit and follow the movements of the practice.

Obviously any breath retention would “stop” you, so that doesn’t make sense if you think about it.

The issue, though, seems to be that a lot of people in the West have redefined the meaning of “Ujayii” from its pranayama roots to a more general one. (I’d say it is a “bastardization” that is akin to how “yoga” has come to effectively mean just “asana.”)

I can understand how Gilgoff would want that fixed. Maybe that process has started.

For our practices, though, the answer is easy: Breath deep. Breath with sound. Breath with control. Move with your breath.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

12 thoughts on “To Ujayii or not to Ujayii, that is the question”

  1. Thanks for posting this. “Free breathing with sound” is a nice way to think about it because the breath has to flow in the context of each asana in order to remain free… it is more alive!

    David Garrigues’ most recent blog post and videos also touch on the subject of what kind of breath is appropriate in ashtanga asana practice.

  2. The interesting thing for me is that in Krishnamacharya’s teaching, as we find it in his Yoga Makaranda (1934) and in his later teaching as well, it is Ujayii, in the full sense, that is employed in his practice of asana, the longer exhalation and often the breath retention. I’m fascinated why that isn’t in Ashtanga, did Krishnamacharya teach a simplified version of the breath to the kids but keep the more sophisticated version in the book and later for his one to one students or did Pattabhi Jois adapt the breath to the style of yoga he taught that we came to know as Ashtanga, in the context of the series and equal inhalation/exhalation does seem to make sense.

    Either way, interesting stuff.

  3. Steve, that is funny…

    One thing that jumps out at me about this distinction between real ujayii and what we do in ashtanga asana practice is the notion of “exhale completely.” It would seem that the ujayii pranayama method basically forces this to occur. While I suspect that this is very beneficial, it is probably quite difficult to do without quite a bit of experience. *If* Sri K. Pattabhi Jois modified the breathing, it’s possible that it had to do with accessibility for the practice. But, that’s just speculation. It would be interesting to hear what Manju has to say.

  4. * Clarification: quite difficult to do consistently all the way through an ashtanga asana practice, without quite a bit of experience.

    1. I’ll come right out and say that the breathing part of Ashtanga is REALLY hard to do!

      It and the dristi, for me, is what differentiates Ashtanga from other yogas (vinyasa specifically). Or, for that matter, from gymnastics. (Not that I’m blazing any trails with that line of thinking. But it always helps me to remember it.)

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