Also known as: heating or victorious breath
Benefits: Concentrates, lengthens, relaxes and directs the breath, focuses and supports the mind and allows the physical body to relax into asana practice. It is also said to give you victory over self doubt, laziness & self-destructive tendencies…..sounds great!!
The breath links the mind and the body and takes the benefits of yoga beyond just the physical. Ujjayi breathing lends a meditative quality to a yoga session and allows the individual to maintain the rhythm of their session… helping us to feel “in the zone”! It is also beneficial as a framing method during the transition out of and into the postures (asanas) – starting the movement as the breath starts and ending as the movement ends. Yoga is based on breath synchronised poses and Ujjayi breathing is generally the preferred breathing technique.
Ujjayi breathing is a calming and balancing breath that increases the oxygenation of the blood. Using a technique in which both inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose encourages a long, smooth breath and allows the body to relax into the yoga practice as the mind becomes focussed. It can be utilised in all yoga practice, from simple joint freeing series (pavanmuktasana) to more dynamic flowing vinyasa practice.
Ujjayi breathing has two distinct characteristics: 1) An action in the throat that produces the distinctive Ujjayi sound; 2) An effort to maintain evenness of flow of the breath from beginning to end of each breath – both on the inhale and the exhale, breathing through the nose.
How to practice… Find a comfortable sitting position with both sitting bones equally placed and the spine long and relaxed. I suggest working on your Ujjayi breathing in a seated, relaxed, cross-legged or kneeling position initially. Aiming to use it throughout your physical asana practice. Ensure that you won’t be disturbed or distracted. A useful place to practice when you have started to master the technique may be in the car when sitting at traffic lights!
- Inhale and exhale a few times deeply through the mouth.
- When breathing out in exhalation imagine you are fogging up a mirror. The aim is to begin to tone/restrict slightly the back of the throat, slightly constricting the passage of air.
- Once you are comfortable with the exhale, begin to apply the same toning of the throat to the inhales. This is where the name of the breath comes from: it sounds like the ocean (It also sounds like Darth Vader). The sound itself is not the point. It’s the gentle action at the back of the throat. The purpose of the Ujjayi sound is to attune your awareness to the breath; to its quality and texture. It gives a slight resistance to the breath and moves the effort into the primary breathing muscles of the diaphragm. This action helps develop the ability to breathe smoothly and continuously.
- When you are able to control the throat on both the inhale and the exhale, close the mouth and begin breathing through the nose. Continue supplying the same toning to the throat that you did when the mouth was open. The breath will still make a loud noise coming in and out of the nose. This is Ujjayi breath.
- To practice the inhalation, focus on creating a soothing and pleasing sound that is unhurried and unforced. Imagine sipping the breath in through a straw. If the suction is too strong the straw collapses and great force is required to suck anything through it. Once Ujjayi breathing is mastered in a seated position, the challenge is to maintain the same quality of breathing throughout your asana practice.
- Now start to use this breath during your practice. If the teacher tells you to move on an inhale, make it an Ujjayi inhale. If you need a little something extra while holding a pose, remember this breath.
- The sound should be like a whisper and when in a room filled with various practitioners who are all engaging their Ujjayi breath, it will sound like the ocean waves.
- Try to do a few postures (asana) using the Ujjayi breath and notice how it can become a point of focus and support. The ultimate goal is to have the ujjayi breath become effortless, smooth and long. Always initiate movement with the breath. If the smoothness of the breath is lost relax into child pose and rest.
Another way to think about Ujjayi Breath is to visualise your throat as a garden hose with the breath passing through it like a trickle of water. If you put your thumb partially over the opening of the hose, you increase the power of the water that is coming through. This is the same thing you are doing with your throat during Ujjayi breathing. This is a powerful, directed breath that you can send into the parts of your body that need it during yoga, for example to create internal heat, release tension or to lengthen and create space.
Ujjayi breath is classified as a diaphragmatic breath. Unlike normal shallow breathing, it utilises the diaphragm (a dome shaped muscle at the base of the chest cavity). This deep breathing is healthier as it allows you to take in more oxygen. When practicing Ujjayi yoga, a person should be able to feel the breath moving down their body on the inhale and up from the pelvic floor on the exhale, until the breathing returns to a more relaxed state.
When done properly Ujjayi breathing should be both energising and relaxing. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali suggests that the breath should be both dirge (long) and suksma (smooth). The sound of Ujjayi is created by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Gently feeling a pulling sensation as the breath inhales and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation creates a well-modulated and soothing sound – something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out or a soft “Darth Vader” sound.
It is important to remember that the key to Ujjayi breathing is relaxation; the action of Ujjayi should naturally lengthen the breath. A small effort is required to produce a pleasing sound, but too much effort creates a grasping quality and grating sound. Do not force or strain the breath and if at any point the breath feels claustrophobic then relax the throat, return to your normal breath and then try again. Generally it is the inhalation that students may find more challenging. So begin by practicing on the exhalation where there is a natural letting go process.
Ujjayi breathing encourages relaxation in difficult or tense situations both physically and mentally. It diminishes distractions, provides a focus and support for the mind and allows the practitioner to remain self-aware but grounded in the practice. The audible sound is also a useful way of remaining non-competitive and not overworking in a practice. If the Ujjayi breath loses its smoothness then the student can relax out of posture.
Throughout your practice, try to maintain the length and smoothness of the breath as much as possible. Once you find a baseline Ujjayi breath in a pose that is not too strenuous (Downward Facing Dog for example), try to maintain the quality of breath throughout the practice. Some asana require great effort, and you may begin to strain your breath. If you are straining in your breath, you may be pushing yourself too hard in your practice. Use that feedback as a guide throughout your practice – if you start to strain, it may be the time to back out of a pose and rest. Enjoy