Ujjayi as our Birth Right
"Slow breathing increases cardiac-vagal baroreflex sensitivity (BRS), improves oxygen saturation, lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety." (1) Yogic breathing is accompanied by a contraction of the glottis muscles. The effects of Ujjayi specifically causes an increase in intrathoracic pressure which requires more effort than just normal deep breathing. Before we get into that and the most accessible place to practice 'Sthira'(stable) and 'Sukha' (comfortable) while controlling the breath AND keeping axial extension, lets take a journey back time to ancient Egypt.
This tableau shows Horus (symbolizing self-consciousness) opening the mouth (symbolically the top of the head) of Osiris. The mouth opening is a part of the esoteric pranayama sadhana of kriya initiates whereby Prana is rotated around the cerebral spine (holy pilgrimage site) to bring about balance and higher states of consciousness. (It is passed on in the oral tradition from teacher to student)
The ancient Indian way of life called yoga places considerable importance on breathing correctly. In one of the yoga texts it is said 'When the breath is irregular, the mind also is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind, and life is prolonged, hence one should regulate the breath (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 2: Verse 2)
Research documents that controlled breathing of around 5-6 breaths per minute can increase vagal activation and lead to a reduction in sympathetic activation which improved mental and physical health. Ujjayi is a resistance type of breathing where the glottis narrows contractually intensifying vagal activity. (average breath is 12-18 per minute) Like all practices in yoga, we need to apply the prescription adhering to 'Ahimsa' or non-violence.(restraint known as a yama in Yoga) This takes time and practice and necessitates being comfortable and stable in the pose. (more of that later)
Babies come into the world with kind of 'shrunk wrapped' lungs and in a conventional birth, baby takes the first (and largest) breath when air is felt on their face. However, fetuses do ‘breath’ in amniotic fluid which forms a critical part in their lung development. The mammalian diving reflex, which is present in all mammals – triggers them to hold their breath while in mother’s womb.
With each breath, millions of sensory receptors in the respiratory system send signals via the vagus nerve to the brain stem. Fast breathing pings the brain at a higher rate, triggering it to activate the sympathetic nervous system, turning up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety. On the other hand, slowing your breathing induces the parasympathetic response, dialing down all of the above as it turns up relaxation, calm, and mental clarity. This would include Ujjayi breathing.
Whilst our first breath may be a gift, we need to learn how to control our breathing as we mature and in spite of life circumstances which we may have no direct control over (karma or causation) This takes time and practice as a baby has stiff lungs (no elastic recoil) and a soft rib cage, and breathes rapidly at around 30-50 breaths per minute. Breathing with a purpose to evolve is an art form which is a by-product of a sane lifestyle. It actually helps to feed our hungry brain which takes around a third of our oxygen. When we start to explore the world our sensory organs want to explore outwards and yet at some point stillness and quietude becomes the aphrodisiac that beacons us home, rather like being in the womb. We learn skills of concentration which lead to meditation whereby the body is comfortably in axial extension and the breath is not labored. If the body is in pain or the mind in anguish this is not possible and this is why stepping into warm water for improved posture and breathing can be important for many diverse populations.
When a woman becomes pregnant she may then begin to consider what is good for the health of the baby. Yet we know that her ability or inability to deal with stress can cause complications for the growing baby. For example the stress felt by prenatal women after 9/11 2001 may well have contributed to an increase in miscarriages in the USA of male fetuses (more of that another time) She is already affecting the baby by how she breathes. I wish I had started to collect data around this time as a few months after this terrorist attack my prenatal yoga class jumped to an unprecedented 30! this included a 5 month old 'little person.' and you can bet we did lots of Ujjayi breathing.
The diving response that we are born with can actually help us to relax. It is stimulated by breath holds and by facial contact with cold water. (stimulated the trigeminal nerve around the nose) which in turn stimulates the vagas nerve causing the pulse to drop and the body to relax.
In water we need to train ourselves in slow and deep breathing in order to understand and control the effects that buoyancy may have upon us and this is part of basic aquatic training. It is not the same environment as land.
Add to that knowledge of yoga pranayama and we have great healing potential for people who are dealing with medical issues like asthma and COPD as well as axial stress in pregnancy and emotional disorders.
The ancients without modern day scientific knowledge were really on to something with yogic breathing, and i think it is still a matter of living a balanced lifestyle and recognizing the profound knowledge that we can take control of our breathing as our birth right. We just have to slow down, practice regularly and keep practicing, so that when life challenges us, we are established in a balancing technique that can help us cope and indeed thrive.
I will be presenting Breath - Yoga and Energy along with Structural Prenatal Yoga and Pelvic Floor at various Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation training events this year. My online Prenatal Yoga teaching is online and is YACEP credit approved. I also offer Aqua Kriya Yoga Training level 1 and 2 which yields IAYT, YA and Aquatic CEU's
"Egypt - Child of Atlantis" - John Gordon