yogic breathing 1: ujjayi breath

Ujjayi (oo-jai) breath is often taught in modern western systems of yoga and is a useful way to stabilize and connect the mind, the breath, and the body, especially in difficult or athletic yoga postures, or any physical activity. The technique is to make your inhale and exhale equal in length and depth, retraining the breath to be full and steady. Feeling the sensation of the pulsation of the lungs and ribcage expanding and contracting with the flow of the breath, in the front body, the back body, and on the sides under the arms, the deep breath fully oxygenating the body and releasing tension in the middle and upper back. As the breath passes across the back of throat, a slight hum is accentuated, creating a subtle resonance and often a slight sound – different systems of yoga recommend various levels of sound.
The sensation of the hum at the back of the throat is a useful focus point for training the mind to concentrate. Concentration both calms the mind from its self-inflicted static, as well as sharpens the mind with the ability to stay present and focus, potentially leading with practice to a calm, awake state. The vibration of the sound is also soothing and can release tension in the head, neck and shoulders, especially if not done too aggressively. It does not need to be forceful. Sometimes the subtlety in this makes the effect even more profound.
There are many techniques to teach this resonance. For example, on an exhale, allow the mouth to open and make the sound Haaaaaa in a loud whisper for the duration of the out-breath. Inhale through the nose. After a few breaths close the mouth during the exhale yet keep the sound. And keep the sound on the inhale. After a few breaths just keep the mouth closed. This is a simplified explanation and a good place to start.
A friend told me she taught herself ujjayi breath while on a solo long distance car trip – she did the breath the whole time. It became instilled inside of her. For many of us, after awhile the ujjayi breath begins to breathe us effortlessly, whenever we start to practice asana (physical yoga postures), walk up a steep hill or do any kind of difficult physical activity, or are in a difficult emotional or real life situation where we need to stay steady. The breath kicks in on its own when needed to stabilize our reaction to what we are going through, without having to remember or make it happen. We have trained our body to know on its own when a deep steady breath will help us out.

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