There are few structures I can speak of with the love that I have for the diaphragm; no action I love more than the breath in, the primary action of life.
When we talk about breathing, we remember that we are first and foremost playing with the energy of our life force, seeing spirit in substance, the way that energy animates the body.
Breath is dynamic movement: from the moment of our first inhale to the release of the very last exhale, the breath is in constant motion, the song and audible spirit of our life itself. With studied, skillful breath, we can see/feel how the diaphragm moves energy at the solar plexus, the low belly can be toned to support the lower spine, how the pelvic floor can be drawn upwards to move the energy of the breath along the entirety of the spine, involving the psoas (on a physical level) and the chakras (on a yogic/energetic level).
From a western medical perspective, breathing is a unique autonomic function in that it can, (unlike, for example, digestion) be brought under voluntary control and then released back to autonomic function. Western science and medicine does not recognize human energy as being another natural, renewable, refineable resource, something that each individual can work. We have an external focus on energy: power plants, nuclear force, solar panels.
This modern view is a dramatic shortchanging of the yogic perspective: breath as a skill, a place to work vital energy and connect with the universal energy that animates all life. It is also written that when mastery and intention are present, the yogi can stop the breath at will. But even if we stay at a practical, empirical, level, the breath is magical. There is a literal exchange of fresh for stale: this is the process of respiration, and occurs on every level, beginning with the organs, circulating into the blood and plasma, then to the cellular level, and finally down to the molecular and energetic level. To inhale is to draw energy to each cell of the body. This is fact.
Like any function, we can strengthen function through skillful application of effort, or we can ignore it until surprised by malfunction. Breath work is instantly gratitfying: take a full inhale and enjoy the energy of your life. Do this for long lengthens of time, daily, over months, years, decades, and you will see how your physical function and form are in constant dialogue. Beautiful, big breath will engage your inner musculature, enliven your energetic being, and change the structure of your body-life. Breathing well begets breathing better.
Working the breath from this perspective, bridging the empirical with the intuitive, naturally demonstrates that many of our autonomic functions are, like the breath, subject to our conscious manipulation. The heart sits just above the diaphragm; the stomach, spleen, and liver sit just below the diaphragm. Through diaphragmatic breath, heart rate can be slowed, digestion can be sped, circulation can be made more efficient. But even if those are the primary goals, the entry point is the breath.
The English for “breath” and “breathing” is somewhat limiting, conceptually. We can look at Latin languages to see the connection between the words for “inhale” (inspirare= to breathe) and see their linguistic connection to the words for spirit, and inspire. The Sanskrit, prana, draws on these older, deeper connections that must have been more natural to the humans speaking our oldest known languages. Prana is not just breath, but the life force. Pranayama is the skill of cessation, restriction, of the breath/ life force.
The foundational breathing technique for yoga asana is diaphragmatic— the yogi learns how to engage bandhas, the energy locks, to drawn up the pelvic floor (mula bandha), back the low belly (uddiyana bandha), and tone the throat (jalandhara bandha). These actions strengthen the abdominal muscles for active exhalee, empowers the diagram to contract for powerful inhale, and invites a uniquely focused mental awareness. With time and steady conscious work (ie daily ashtanga and ujayi breath), we see that working the breath tones the heart (sitting just above the diaphragm) and digestive organs (behind the low belly). Sexual energy is sublimated into spiritual energy or empowered in practice, depending on the practitioner’s direction of bhramacharya.
What do we mean by ujayi breath? The old school ashtanga answer is “breath with sound.” This is misleading at best, and is reflective of a limited English vocabulary, or a poor but popularized interpretation of a powerful breathing technique fundamental to the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Listen to any strained, erratic, guttural breathing in the yoga room and you will intuitively recognize that is not a conscious, well directed practice of any pranayama technique, much less one that translates as breath of Victory.
The best definition I have read for ujayi breath comes from an Israeli author from the Iyengar lineage— far from the Jois school in Mysore, India. The definition is this: in ujayi breath, the belly goes back on the inhale, and stays back on the exhale.
Yes. This is in accordance with Ashtanga’s practice of bandhas, and the imager school’s teachings of quiet, even breath with asana practice. To me, we should be able to reconcile and equate the breathing techniques from different lineages of yoga, especially Ashtanga and Iyengar, because they are so closely related through a shared teacher, Krishnamacharya.
Can you add sound to ujayi? Absolutely. By enhancing the jalandara bandha, you can add sound to even breathing with the belly back on the inhale, and back on the inhale. Adding sound to breath is an especially powerful teaching tool: the teacher can set the pranayama pacing and duration for the class; the students can emulate the sound and create a shared resonance of audible energy. It is akin to chanting om.
The sound of the ujayi breath is secondary to the inner work of drawing up and in the bandhas, engaging the body for lifting energy upwards, engaging intentional mental awareness, and strengthening the inner arches: pelvic floor, diaphragm, throat. With practice, your breath and bandha work become more effect and more efficient, recreating the energetic requirement of breathing and circulation, while simultaneously enhancing their vital functions.
The flush of energy will be viscerally noticeable during and after daily practice; the long range effects will be both gradual and appreciable. You will maximize your energy in (full inhale), minimize the energy used (effecient circulation of breath), and live with a higher level of energy that we experience as inspiration, joyous living, and love for the breath itself.