The first time I heard someone use ujjayi breath, I thought they were having a seizure. For those of you not into yoga, it’s a breathing technique that uses a constricted throat and produces an oceanic sound. So they say. To me it sounded like a cross between a snore and a death rattle. It certainly didn’t sound healthy. I glanced over to the kid next to me, a tiny little girl smiling serenely with her hands pressed together in prayer, making this frightening noise.
The class teacher passed in front of me and began to instruct the class on how to create and use ujjayi breath in our yoga practice. I tried to constrict my throat but the only thing that came out of me was a gag reflex and a panic attack. The teacher insisted that she wanted to hear an oceanic sound coming from all of us. I tried again. It didn’t work. I gave up. When the teacher passed me, I made a snoring sound. She bought it – or she chose to leave me alone.
Making sound when I breathe is not something that I am accustomed to. In the world of ballet where I grew up in, we practiced silent breathing. The idea is to make the effort of dance seem effortless and that included the sound. No unnecessary sound of the feet hitting the floor and definitely no audible breathing. Sure the chest might be heaving after a particularly vigorous dance – but it was a visible heave and not an audible one. I still like my ability to take long deep silent breaths.
But now here I am in the yoga world where breathing is an important component of the practice. Maybe there should be some clarification. Maybe we should stress the goal is to have controlled breathing, calm breathing, deep breathing. Telling someone to breathe is kind of silly. Everyone alive is breathing. A wonderful meditation teacher once introduced counting as a means to extend the breaths. It was very effective and that was the method that I used to cultivate more breath control into my life.
How does controlled breath aid our lives? I once took an hour-long yoga class while breathing through a straw – for the entire hour. Although physically it was an easy class, it felt like one of the longest hours of my life. The inability to have all the air I wanted when I wanted it was maddening and it put me in a constant state of panic. All my yogic breath training kicked into full gear as I tried to convince myself that I was OK, that I was in control of my slow breathing. A side note to this anecdote: A friend did this exercise with me and we both discovered that with our focus distracted by our inability to take full breaths, we missed almost 50% of what the teacher said (a good note for anyone teaching people with respiratory issues).
Now that I have more calmness when I breathe, I find that many teachers instruct breathing too fast. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing the straw exercise again. I think it’s better to be too slow. If a student gets stressed by the slowness of the breath cue, they can always take a small hiccup of air and then rejoin the rhythm of the class. Forcing a faster breath or not allowing a breath to go to its natural fullness causes a stress in the body. As a teacher, I follow the breath of the slowest breathing person in the room and within a few cycles, most of the class is on the same rhythm. I still don’t see the difference between silent controlled breathing and audible controlled breathing but I certainly don’t know everything and these are simply observations made on a long journey.