What is the ujjayi breath?
The ujjayi breath (ooh-JAH-yee) is translated as the victorious breath. It allows us to breathe in a controlled manner. It is a deep sonorous sound that increases the movement of the diaphragm and lengthens the spine. The soft consistent sound aids the consistent flow of the breath and helps to build heat in the body which is conducive to stretching and cleanses and purifies the body. Unlike other pranayamas that are generally practiced while seated or lying down, ujjayi is maintained throughout our yoga practice.
Why do we use the Ujayii breath?
The ujjayi breath is the starting point for any asana practice. The breath is the first component of the tristanam of yoga practice, the 3 places of attention. It is through the breath that the other 2 components, the body and mind are transformed.
By consciously controlling the breath, one inhibits the death force. The fire in the body, agni ,increases, the life force also increases so ujayii pranayama is considered to be the victory of life. It is also known as the ocean breath or Darth Vader breath due to the sound of the breath when it is practiced.
The steadiness, sound, and depth of the ujjayi breath help to link the mind, body, and spirit to the present moment. This unification adds richness and depth to your practice and helps to cultivate presence and awareness.
The inhalation, the puraka, corresponds to the sun, fire, the heart and the life force, it is heating, the exhalation, the rechaka corresponds to the moon, it is a cooling breath associated with the lungs and death. When done effectively, ujjayi breathing is both energising and relaxing.
Correct application of ujjayi restriction at the base of the throat subtly activates jalandara bandha increasing uddiyana bandha, diaphragmatic movement, uddiyana increases mula bandha. The flowing process of ujjayi promotes all 3 bandhas equally (you can read more about the bandhas here)
With consistent practice breathing lengthens throughout the practice, awareness of your body’s needs of movement increase and injury is unlikely.
If breathing is soft and consistent it is almost impossible to push too hard. Always remember that breathing should never be at the expense of a posture Throughout your yoga practice, aim to maintain the length and smoothness of the breath as much as possible, endeavor to maintain the quality of breath throughout the practice
How to practice Ujayii
- Maintain equality in the breath, inhaling and exhaling for equal amounts of time. Slow deep breathing bringing balance to the breath, to the body and to the mind.
- Now inhale fully through the nose and sigh the breath out through the mouth making a haaa sound as you continue to do this notice that the sighing sound is coming from the back of the throat. You could imagine that you are trying to fog up a mirror with your breath.
- Now closing the mouth, gently constrict the back of the throat and continue to breath in and out through both nostrils continuing to make a soft sighing sound in the throat with the inhalation and exhalation.
- Gently pulling the breath in on inhalation and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this resistance creates a flowing and soothing sound like that of ocean waves rolling in and out.
- On the inhalation, the puraka, air will be felt on the upper palate. There will be a “sa” sound due to the friction of the air moving over the palate. Allow the abdominal muscles to contract slightly and allow the ribs to raise and expand to allow the lungs to expand with air.
- It is helpful to gently smile while breathing. Sense the breath at the back of the throat. It can be considered as a smile at the back of the throat. When the sound is at the back of the throat it resonates in the chest cavity giving the diaphragm full range of movement.
- During the exhalation, the rechaka, the breath is also felt on the upper palate, the sound made will be “ha”. During the exhalation, the abdominal muscles will naturally be more retracted.
- Allow a small space between the upper and lower jaw keeping the face relaxed. With the face relaxed in this way the sound becomes smoother, softer, more resonant and less harsh. Conversely if the teeth are clenched and the jaw locked the sound hisses inside the mouth and bounces off the upper palate. When tense in an asana there is often an unecessary reflection of tension in the jaw and face. This indicates a state of pushing more common on the exhalation so be aware of this in your practice. There is a direct relationship between releasing the jaw, lengthening the spine and the freedom of movement of the diaphragm. The correct application of ujjayi at the base of the throat subtely activates jalandara bandha, increasing the uddiyana bandha which increases mula bandha.
- The breath becomes rhythmic and we can ride the breath gracefully through the practice, the sound of the breath becoming a mantra to focus and pacify the mind.
Benefits of Ujayii
- Focusing on the breath and linking breath to movement reduces external distractions and allows the practitioner to remain self aware and grounded in their practice. This cultivates Pratyahara (this literally means “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences). The breath acts as a barometer to the nature of our practice. The nature of the breath gives us immediate feedback. With too much effort the breath becomes restricted or forced, with too little focus the breath may become drowned out by the competing noises of our own thoughts. Throughout asana practice we should be able to breathe easily with the breath remaining as even and smooth in the postures as when we rest. If the mind or the body becomes tired the breath will mirror the fatigue in the breath. If the breath becomes forced or laboured we need to surrender into a resting posture. Restring will restore normal breathing so that your practice can resume with the body, breath and mind working as one unit. By maintaining awareness on the breath every moment becomes a meditation.
- Ujayii helps to focus the mind and keep awareness on the present moment. It improves concentration in the physical asana practice and develops concentration skills in our day to day lives.
- Ujjayi allows us to practice full deep breaths during the challenges of a physical practice. This equips us with life skills that allow us to remain just as equanimous when faced with the stresses and challenges of our daily lives.
- When we become absorbed in the rhythm of the ujjayi breath we create a meditative quality which encourages flow and rhythm during our physical practice and enables us to remain in postures for longer periods of time, building endurance and stamina.
- 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.
- Ujjayi is particularly beneficial for calming the body and mind. It is known to be beneficial for those suffering from stress, insomnia, depression and mental tension.
- A focused ujjayi breath can also release tension and tight areas of the body. Regularly practicing ujjayi breath can help you to release pent-up emotions.
- Reduces pain from headaches
- Relieves sinus pressure
- Decrease phlegm
- Strengthens the nervous
- Strengthens the digestive system.
- Balances the Cardio-respiratory system helping to carry oxygen to the muscles of the body and organs and removing waste. Ujayii increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and helps to regulate blood pressure by slowing the heart rate.
- Stimulates Nadis (energy channels in the body) bringing mental clarity and focus and encourages free flow of prana the vital life force around the body which builds energy and promotes longevity
When to use ujjayi breath off the mat
Aside from practicing ujjayi throughout asana practice it offers benefits in our daily lives
- When you’re agitated/annoyed: Ujjayi breath clams the body, mind and will ease stress and agitation. Whenever you find yourself becoming aggravated or stressed take some Ujayii breaths. You will notice a prompt soothing effect.
- When exercising: Ujjayi is also useful when you’re doing aerobic exercise such as running or cycling. Many athletes work with ujayii breathing to improve their respiratory efficiency. Try using ujayii when exercising and see how your performance improves
- When you’re anxious/nervous: The slow, deep and rhythmic nature of the ujjayi breath soothes the nervous system and calms the body/mind. It also brings the mind back into present awareness. When you are focused on the breath you are in present time reality. The mind is like a pendulum swinging between past and future, our breath is always in the present, you cannot observe a past or a future breath, to keep the mind in the present, focused on the breath gives the body and mind rest, it de-stresses and makes the mind more efficient.