Ujjayi has been used for thousands of years to enhance hatha yoga practice. The sound that Ujjayi provides helps us to synchronize breath with movements during yoga, making the entire yoga practice more rhythmic.
“As breath stills our mind, our energies are free to unhook from the senses and bend inward.” ― B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life
There is no doubt about the profound connection between the breath and the mind. Breath is vital. Breath is life. It’s the one thing that we could absolutely not live without, and yet we rarely take the time to observe and acknowledge all of its exquisiteness. Stop reading and take one deep inhale and one deep exhale. Now take a few more and notice the wave of equanimity wash over you. The breath is magic.
Ujjayi breath and the nervous system
From our very first breath until our final exhale we are, without any deliberate effort, continuously breathed by our Autonomic Nervous system (ANS). Unlike other ANS actions in the body (like pupil dilation) we are able to take voluntary control over our breathing and thus, critically, can influence our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous system.
When we breathe Ujjayi breath we transform the automatic into the deliberate and thereby become the master of our internal landscape; we can positively affect how we feel by regulating the length, air volume and sound of our inhales and exhales.
Which breath, which style?
There’s a multitude of breathing techniques used in yoga and meditation. Some styles of yoga (e.g. Ashtanga & Jivamukti) and certain teachers are more breath-focused than others, meaning they call/instruct each and every inhale and exhale throughout the class. They become a human metronome setting the rhythm which you begin to internalise. In other classes you will be not be breath led in this way which as a novice to Ujjayi might mean you spend a lot of time practicing asana without breathing optimally. Many students have shared with me “ah-ha” moments when experiencing a breath led practice for the first time. It is a key that unlocks many doors and can transform your practice.
Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai) breath is a form of Pranayama (breath work) and can be translated to “Victorious Breath.” It’s often referred to today as “Oceanic Breath” or “Darth Vader Breath.” Regardless of what you prefer to call it, it can take your yoga practice to the next level. Ujjayi is considered a diaphragmatic breath technique because the qualities of the breath are disciplined by the diaphragm.
How It Works: A Beginners Guide
Before you begin remember to relax. Don’t overthink the process. Ujjayi breathing is designed to lengthen and smooth out the breath for you. Less thinking; more breathing.
It’s good to start in a comfortable seated position. Sit up tall and gently close the eyes. On your inhales fill the lower belly then the rib cage and lungs and up to the throat. You can practice ujjayi breath by taking a deep inhale through your nose and imagining fogging up a mirror on your exhale through your mouth; it helps to make the sound “haaaah” slowly through your mouth.
After a few breaths like this, seal the lips and try again. The key is to gently constricting the back of the throat so the air passage becomes smaller and the breath drags up and down the throat, similar to the constriction made when speaking in a whisper. Therefore, it is an audible breathe that is often compared to the sound of the ocean. Although there is a constriction of the throat, the Ujjayi breath flows in and out through the nostrils, with the lips remaining gently closed. It takes some practice, so be patient with yourself. Notice where resistance lies in the breath. Maybe you find the audibility awkward, equalising the volume of breath on both inhale and exhale difficult, or you notice the discrepancy of ease between in-breath and out-breath. Notice where you need to focus and what you need to practice on.
Sama Vritti (Same or Equal fluctuations)
Along with the even tone of breath, the length of the breath is the same on the inhale as it is on the exhale. You complete a full in-breath within the same time as you complete your out-breath.If the inhale and exhale are not equal, shorten the longer breath to meet the shorter breath. You don’t want to feel out of breath or gasping at any point. There is absolutely NO RETENTION, it’s like a continuous sea of waves, no holding, totally fluid and seamless. Equanimous. Using a metronome is a brilliant practice, if you are a musician you might have one already but if not there are some great online/phone applications that I’ve used with my students before. Set your metronome at 75 bpm, inhale for 4 beats, exhale for 4. An app that accents/ punctuates the beginning of each new cycle of breath is preferable.
With an even tone and length of breath, the last refinement is to breathe fully, deeply and completely (air volume of breath). Within each cycle you spend the entire inhale filling up and entire exhale releasing breath – at no point do you hold the breath – seamless and smooth, try not let the breath run out.
The ‘Oceanic Breath’It may be beneficial to think about your ujjayi breath like rolling ocean waves. The breath is to be long, fluid, and smooth. Your inhales are full and robust. Expand the belly out as the diaphragm lowers, fill the lungs, and breathe the ribs wide. Visualize a beautiful blue ocean wave swelling and beginning to crest. Take note of the natural pause at the top of the inhale and savor this swift moment of stillness. When you begin to exhale and the diaphragm begins to rise imagine an ocean wave rising and rolling over itself, tumbling into the vast sea and gently settling back in to where it began. Allow these breaths and visualizations to cycle over and over until you no longer need to use your imagination and can fully focus on your ujjayi breath.
Effects of Ujjayi Pranayama
“Ujjayi Pranayama is a balancing and calming breath which increases oxygenation and builds internal body heat.” —Krishnamacharya
Like most forms of Yoga breathing, Ujjayi Pranayama is a breathing technique which brings profound results. The Ujjayi breathing technique stills the mind and “prana”. This results in a sense of deep inner stillness and peace. Yoga is a practice of integration and deliberate identification. Ujjayi Pranayama is another tool to add to our box, another practice which encourages the mind to rest its awareness on the present moment, and identify with our immediate experience. This process of mindfulness can be one of our biggest conquests. Mastery of the conscious mind. We become absorbed as we synchronise our movement with our breath. Our level of agitation settles, the fluctuations of our mind (chitta vritti) decelerate and for glimpses of a moment we are ‘all in’. As we learn to regulate the gross body through different yogic practices including pranayama, we can access and influence our subtle bodies.
Yoga Pranayama is not just a set of breath exercises. Yoga Pranayama is the gateway to the stilling of agitated prana or energy. When the prana is stilled through pranayama, then your perception will slip into a state that is beyond prana – beyond energy. Such a meditative stillness is known as Spirit. Spirit is beyond all energy and form.
Benefits of Ujjayi Breathing
Some yogis argue that Ujjayi. should not be practiced in asana (physical postures), and prefer a normal breath. Consequently, some yogis believe the Ujjayi comes natural when the postures are deeply understood, and shouldn’t be focused on until such mastery of asana is attained. Yet, in a Vinyasa style of yoga, the Ujjayi is emphasized as a way to link the breath with the movement, as Vinyasa yoga is based on breath-synchronized poses. Ujjayi has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system, releases feelings of irritation and frustration, and helps calm the mind and body. With Ujjayi, there are so many benefits, providing good value for a simple practice. Here are a few benefits you may enjoy as a result of practicing the Ujjayi breath:
1. Improves concentration in the physical practice. It Links breath to movement and helps focus the mind and keeps your awareness on the present moment; becoming absorbed in Ujjayi allows the practitioner to remain in poses for longer periods of time
2. Instills endurance and builds energy that enhances a flowing practice by lending a meditative quality that maintains the rhythm of the class.
3. Stimulates Nadis (energy channels in the body) bringing mental clarity and focus. It diminishes distractions and allows the practitioner to remain self aware and grounded in the practice.
4. Ujjayi breath regulates heating of the body. The friction of the air passing through the lungs and throat generates internal body heat. It is similar to a massage for the internal organs; as the core becomes warm from the inside, the body becomes prepared for the asana practice. This heat makes stretching safer while the inner organs can be cleansed of any toxins that have accumulated.
5. A focused Ujjayi breath can release tension and tight areas of the body and encourages free flow of prana
6. Ujjayi balances the Cardio-respiratory System helping to carry oxygen to your muscles and organs and removing waste. It promotes diminished pain from headaches, relief of sinus pressure, decrease in phlegm, and strengthening of the nervous and digestive systems. Ujjayi Increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and regulates blood pressure.
7. Ujjayi tells us when we need to surrender into a resting posture, as the breath should remain as even and smooth in the postures as when we rest. It allows us to practice honesty in our practice, taking a step back to let go of our ego. When listened to, your breath can be your true teacher, guiding you in a myriad of ways. The ancient yogis realized the intimate connection between the breath and the mind.
8. Ujjayi allows us to practice full deep breaths during the challenges of a physical practice. Therefore, we can stay just as equanimous when faced with the challenges of our daily lives.
Ujjayi breath is a pragmatic teaching of equanimity, non-attachment, not being swayed by the pulls of our desire to feel good (Raga) and repulsion when we feel bad (Dvesha)
Ujjayi in practice
Notice when you’re next holding Utkatasana (chair pose) for 5 breaths, you’re doing your tenth Surya Namaskar B (sun salutation B), or you’re holding pigeon pose for 20 breaths… Your breath shows you where you are holding, where you are finding it hard to let go, where you are over exerting.
Not only does Ujjayi hold a mirror up to your existing unconscious habits but it soon becomes a new habit, one that can soothe, lull and seduce your body and mind into a state of increased and progressive ease. You can sit in the fire of a posture (or an emotion), feel the heat yet feel radically calm and undisturbed. Now take that off your mat into your next review with your boss, when dealing with your toddler’s tantrums, or an argument with your partner.
When to Use Ujjayi Breath
When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace – Anonymous
When you’re practicing hatha (including Ashtanga and Vinyasa flow) yoga: Try focusing on Ujjayi breathing while practicing yoga to help you stay focused and centered as you flow from one posture to the next. But if you are on your yoga mat, acknowledge that the breath creates heat in the body. If you are doing a Yin or Restorative yoga class you may not want to add this element of heat in the body. Instead you might want to maintain a soft and fluid breath without sound. There also might be times in your practice where adding heat is inappropriate (e.g some pregnant practitioners find Ujjayi breath too heating to maintain for an entire practice) or where breathing in and out of the nose is impossible (e.g. blocked sinuses). At times like this you might want to keep the intention of Ujjayi breath in mind without practicing it.
When you’re agitated: Since the Ujjayi breath is especially good for settling agitation and stress, and balancing the mind, try shifting into Ujjayi breath whenever you find yourself becoming aggravated or stressed. You should notice a soothing effect promptly. I remember being particularly upset early last year and after a heated conversation with a loved one, stood up, slammed the door (yes, yoga teachers do it sometimes too!) and sat outside hyperventilating.
I heard a gentle voice encouraging me to breathe Ujjayi breath. [FACT – you cannot hyperventilate or even cry and breathe Ujjayi breath at the same time.] Pretty instantly my entire system slowed down and a sense of calm came over me.
When exercising: Ujjayi is also useful when you’re doing aerobic exercise such as running or cycling. In fact, some Olympic-level athletes have introduced Ujjayi into their training routines to improve their respiratory efficiency. Experiment with this breath technique when you’re working out and see if it reduces wear and tear on your body.
When you’re nervous: The slow and rhythmic nature of the Ujjayi breath is incredibly helpful to calm nerves. Next time you find yourself with a case of the jitters, try some yogic breathing to settle the worries.
Your victory and triumph is the composure you learn to maintain by sticking with it, grounding yourself in your considered and calm breath. Unwavering. In your yoga tool box you’ve got this breath technique, this antidote, wherever you go. I find it so empowering to be able to cultivate these inner resources whereby I can learn to tune in and switch from a reactive state to a proactive state of experiencing. This is the magic of breath.