Ujjayi breathing is a breathwork done in vibratory key (successive singing of sounds that compose the OM mantra) that in our School tradition is practiced almost from the very beginning (A.G. Safronov “Yoga: Physiology, Psychosomatics, Bioenergetics”, Kh, 2008, “Psychological Practices in Mystic Traditions: from Archaic to Our Days”, Kh., 2008).
A pranayama under the same title but of completely different essence is one of the most popular pranayamas in Ashtanga-yoga tradition that comes as a result of practice applied by its “setter” and inspirer – Sri Pattabhi Jois. The character of practice is rather dynamic – asanas are grouped in certain successions (vinyasas) and are done without intervals in compliance with strictly set scheme. They are accompanied by ujjayi (“victorious, triumphant” in translation from Sanskrit ) — a specific breathwork that goes as veritable refrain through the whole practice. The associate the Hindu were referring to in their denomination of the pranayama is not very clear, but if to base upon one’s own impression that emerges after practicing Ashtanga in ashrams of Jois and Sheshadri we would for sure apply this title to the whole style in general: having survived one hour and a half of rather “heavy” exercising one comes as a complete and unconditional triumphant that has overcome oneself. This feeling is supported by the sense of total muscular laxation, and one feels fresh and “newly born” if not with one’s soul, then for sure with one’s body.
This is a curious and even paradoxical effect, and we believe it owes such result to the well-directed breathwork, with asanas that come as merely a pleasant supplement to the practice.
In order to clear out the issue let us remember the technique of Ujjayi performance as suggested by Pattabhi Jois: while breathing we keep our larynx (gorge) pressed up thus putting hindrance to the inhaled and exhaled air.
1. If the practice is done in proper way we shall immediately witness two processes: hissing and whistling sounding of our organism and rather substantial dissonance in sensing our body, this being the unconscious strain of muscles — not only those required, but any other as well: those of abdominal, ribcage, perineum, hands and others, in dependance upon actual pathogenic “arches” of the practicing individual. This state, being extremely uncomfortable, induces our prompt comprehension of what muscles we should relax and what muscles should be kept tense, and by this the necessity of concentration and attention focusing at the area of one’s throat comes very helpful (yet we think that location of attention focus can be transferred to any other zone of our organism). In this way in case of regular practice one drills the ability of concentration and attention focusing upon deliberately selected processes in one’s body, thus becoming able to correct pathogenic intermuscular arches. But this effect does not explain the whole range of modifications that happen to one’s body at the time of Ujjayi practice, thus we should continue with our investigation.
2. For this very purpose let us return to the throat area. During pranayama the muscles that exert and coart the larynx are constantly engaged into working process, in addition being “massaged” by the pressed air flow. These muscles are innervated by laryngeal nerves that are the rami of the pneumogastric nerve (nervus vagus) that “represents interests” of the organism parasympathetic nervous system.
On account of this fact we may assume that constant stimulation of vagus peripheral rami shall “launch” parasympathetic nervous system that shall make cardiac rate less frequent, shall induce slight drop of arterial pressure and respiratory rate slowdown.
Reflexes of similar kind have been described long time ago and in medicine they are known under the titles of Aschner reflex — a decrease in pulse rate associated with traction applied to extraocular muscles and/or compression of the eyeball, and Hering reflex – when similar effects emerge while pressing upon the area of arteria carotis divergence. Here we may also refer reflexory drop of pressure that results from swallowing.
Besides, any effect made upon reflexory zones of parasympathetic nervous system shall as a rule cause suppression of some parts of central nervous system that leads to drop of impulsation from muscular receptors and thus amyotonia of skeleton muscles. Muscular laxation of similar kind can be also observed in case of “parasympathetic” respiration, i.e. infrequent respiration. The mechanisms of this phenomenon have not been studied outright though the effect was more than once described in medical literature and they have singled out some certain correlation between respiratory centers neurons’ activity and intensiveness of signals that come from muscular proprioceptors.
Thus we may assume the existence of laryngeal-vagus reflex that provides phenomenological basis of Ujjayi (Snake- breathing) effect. It is very interesting since the mechanism described enables us to make a conclusion that it is the practice of pranayama that the Ashtanga effect of “corporal reincarnation” should be linked with. Vinyasas are merely “beaded” onto the thread of breathwork. And body postures are applied onto the previously prepared foundation of relaxed muscles enabling one to anew sculpturing of one’s body. Another interesting fact is that this effect is explained in regular course of Bihari school of yoga that gives substantiated recommendation for employing this pranayama in case of arterial hypertension as well as for releasing extensive emotional and muscular tension.
We should also mention that the afore-described effect enables to smooth the work of one’s heart while practicing Ashtanga exercises.
3. Moreover, if we go back to the fact that motor nucleus of the pneumogastric nerve is “conjoint” with motor nucleus of the accessory nerve that is responsible for the work of the sternocleidomastoid and trapezoid muscle, we may assume laxation of enlisted muscles in case of excitement accumulation in motor neuron. This shall enable us to recommend this type of respiration as “relaxation” for individuals with reflectory tense neck.
4. We believe that Ujjayi impact upon organism goes beyond those afore-listed, and thus we shall mention at least one more nuance of the practice: the permanently preserved thoracic cavity supertension. It is interesting since methods of similar kind are suggested by academician A. P. Sielber, the setter and ideological inspirer of respiratory medicine in Russia. Under his supervision they perform active elaboration and implementation of “positive expiratory-end pressure” and “permanent positive pressure” techniques for treatment of patients with respiratory system pathologies. In fact these methods come as analogues of yogic Ujjayi. And probably the main difference between these practices is that in clinics they use special devices for this very purpose while in our practice of yoga we use resources of our own organism. Research studies show that these regimes increase alveolaris volume due to expansion of accessory alveoli, they improve pulmonary distensibility and prevent from emergence of the so-called gas tapping or expiratory closure of respiratory passages (the essence of this phenomenon in healthy organism lies in alveoli collapse in case of forced expiration and sealing of exhausted air within them, thus preventing the inflow of oxygen-saturated air during further inspiration. People who suffer from respiratory malfunctions show much more registered cases of this effect than those with normal respiration). Besides, it results in increase of cumulative pulmonary capillary area thus facilitating increase of blood oxygenation and discharge of lactic acid that is generated at the time of asanas practice. This effect explains the absence of muscle fever (DOMS) after fairly intensive muscular practice of Ashtanga.
These are the main effects from performing Ujjayi, though we assume there may be other effects of this pranayama influence upon human organism that come in addition to those mentioned.
We shall once again enlist those described:
- Rise of parasympathetic tonus and laxation of skeleton muscles that enables one to perform a more effective rearrangement of body motor stereotypes in the following practice of asanas and “eases down” one’s heart.
- Improvement of a number of criteria that characterize pulmonary ventilation and blood-supply, this being important on its own. Moreover, this effect facilitates a fairly physiologic organism oxygenation and prevents muscles from accumulation of lactic acid that is generated in terms of intensive practice.
- Reflexory laxation of the neck muscles.
Yoga Instructor (Ukrainian Yoga Federation)