Ujjayi Pranayama is a popular breathing technique practiced by constricting the glottis, producing a “HAAAAH” sound from the back of the throat. This sound is very pleasing as if the ocean waves are approaching the coast.
Lengthening each breath cycle is the aim of Ujjayi breath; so we inhale and exhale in a deeper and controlled manner. It’s the reason ujjayi is incorporated in sitting postures as well as vinyasa style yoga.
There are different names of ujjayi pranayama as victorious breathing or conqueror breath, ocean breathing, and psychic breath. What do all these names signify can be better understood on knowing the meaning of ujjayi.
What does Ujjayi mean?
Ujjayi, pronounced as ‘ooh-JAI-yee’, is a sanskrit term comprised of prefix ‘Ud’ and root ‘ji’.
Combing both ‘Ud’ and ‘ji’ makes the term “Ujjayi”, means victory – victorious. Hence, ujjayi pranayama literally meaning “victorious breath” or “breath of victory.”
Moreover, Prefix ‘Ud’ itself implies bondage and root ‘ji’ means conquering.
On practicing ujjayi pranayama one can feel a sense of freedom from worldly bondages as if conquering from within – Hence it’s known as “conqueror breath“. However, due to its calming and soothing effect on the entire nervous system, ujjayi pranayama is called “psychic breath.”
Ujjayi is one of 8 classical pranayamas mentioned in the classical hatha yoga text Hatha Pradipika.
In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, ujjayi pranayama is described beautifully saying it gives such immense power to practitioners that they can destroy decay and death. It implies one can conquer death just by practicing the ujjayi breathing.
Ujjayi Pranayama Benefits
Ujjayi is such a relaxing breath that encourages your mind to experience the present moment sensation i.e. mindfulness. This process of mindfulness calms the mind and helps you override thought fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti).
Taking the physiological perspective of Ujjayi, it has a direct impact on your thyroid and parathyroid glands, which will optimize the hormones created by these glands; parathyroid, T3, T4, and calcitonin hormones. By regulating hormones, ujjayi pranayama can maintain body temperature, normal pulse rate, digestion, brain maturity and growth in children, and level concentration and reflex of mind.
Ujjayi pranayama affecting the thyroid glands, parathyroid glands, respiratory systems, and cardiovascular systems, delivers a wide range of health benefits like:
- Improved cardiovascular vitals
- Reduced blood pressure
- Increased respiration capacity and efficiency
- Improved cognition and motor functions
- Management of stress and anxiety
- Improved overall rest
- Improve your control of vocal cords
- Increase your respiratory awareness
- Enhance your exercise performance ability
What scientific study says?
Studies show that ujjayi pranayama can significantly impact cardiovascular autonomic functions, that decrease heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Breathing with ujjayi sound optimizes the inhibitory neural impulses, by activating the stretch receptors of the lungs, during the tidal volume inhalation .
Ujjayi pranayama also establishes an equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, that triggers widespread relaxation in your blood vessels. Consequently, your blood pressure stabilizes generating many other related benefits.
Another research conducted in Ovidius University Romania exhibited that Ujjayi Pranayama provided significant benefit to resting heart rate and pulse rate, with just 8 weeks of practice . Yet another study focused on how Ujjayi improved vital capacity and breath-hold capacity as well .
The construct of Ujjayi Breathing
The ujjayi pranayama has two important physiological constructs to it. The glottis and the diaphragm. Glottis is the middle part of the larynx in the top of the neck where the vocal cords are located. The glottis acts as the primary valve between the lung and the mouth; the valve is right below the epiglottis and opens into the vocal fold.
Gaining control of the glottis valve will be a major part of training for Ujjayi breathing. It is the movement made by this valve that narrows the breath passage and creates the Ujjayi sound.
The second most important construct will be your diaphragm. As the glottis curates the air passage, your diaphragm movement will generate the muscle contractions required to draw in the breath. Thus to perform ujjayi, one must have sufficient practice of diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm movement will determine the inhalation volume and length.
Getting Ujjayi Sound
Getting ujjayi sound gives you a glimpse of what it feels like to be breathe in ujjayi pranayama.
Follow these simple steps to get ujjayi sound.
- Lift your hand in front of your face, palm facing mouth, and breathe normally through your mouth. Feel the air coming out of your mouth to the palm surface.
- Now slightly contract your throat by pulling your chin down. Open your mouth and breathe out slowly as you’re trying to steam up a mirror in front of you. The sound of exhaling ujjayi seems like continuous waves of the ocean are approaching the shore.
- Breathe in the same manner through your mouth while gently constricting your back of the throat. This time you will feel a soothing air passes from your throat to the opening of your mouth. The sound of inhaling ujjayi seems like, the sound produced when you cup a seashell over your ear.
Practice getting ujjayi sound for few rounds as a preparatory exercise. In the actual practice of ujjayi pranayama, you would have to maintain the same sound of breathing with the closed mouth (through the nose).
How to Do Ujjayi Pranayama?
Follow these step-by-step instructions to practice ujjayi pranayama.
Step 1 – Sitting comfortably
Lengthen your spine and relax your shoulders. Distribute your body weight evenly on both sitting bones, to maintain proper balance. Seal your lips, place both hands on the kneecap. Focus well on sealing the lips because it is pivotal for ujjayi breathing to be passaged through the nostrils.
Step 2 – Constricting throat muscle
Press your tongue against the roof of the mouth, and concentrate on feeling the opening at the back of your throat, exactly below the epiglottis. This opening is essentially a valve, surrounded by throat muscles. Constrict the muscles to hold the opening in a narrowed hole-like shape. Of course, you have no option to see how the opening looks in your throat. Your best bet will be to concentrate and try to visualize the narrowed hole. And then as you inhale adjust your vocal muscles to reach the right sound.
Step 3 – Incorporating abdomen and diaphragm
Once you have managed to construct the ujjayi opening in your throat, engage your abdomen region. We generally inhale using both our abdomen muscles and throat muscles, however, we are never conscious of the movements in the abdomen muscles. To practice ujjayi pranayama, the breath inhaled should be consciously drawn using your abdomen muscles and diaphragm. If done correctly, spontaneous and effortless contraction of the abdomen should happen (just like the deep belly breathing).
Step 4 – Focusing on the nostril inhale
Bring your awareness to inhaling through the nostrils. Take a slightly deep breath in than a normal and direct it through the imagined hole in the back of the throat. After first inhale, hold the breath for 2-3 seconds. Then exhale out the stored breath from your nose producing the sound ‘HHHHHAAAA’ through the constricted throat.
Try to create a sound loud enough to be audible to the practitioner or a nearby person. Remember that even though you will be breathing through your nostrils, the passage of breath in both drawing in and out should be more prominently felt at the back of the throat
Step 5 – Repetition
One cycle of Ujjayi consists of 1 breath in and 1 out. Choose the number of cycles you want to go for; generally, 3-5 minutes prove to be effective.
Mechanism of Ujjayi Pranayama
Ujjayi breath is a kind of diaphragmatic breath in which internal organs from the lower belly to the throat, all participate in an equal manner.
Below mentioned steps shows how the movement of breath happens in the ujjayi pranayama.
- The nose is the center for both inhalation and exhalation. Breath enters through the nose in Ujjayi.
- As we breathe in all air goes down into the lower belly through the constricted throat.
- Then from the lower abdomen, the breath moves upwards to the chest when inhalation converts to retention.
- After retaining breath at the chest for a while, exhalation begins. Here, Diaphragm controls the length and speed of the breath.
- In this stage, we constrict the vocal cords of the throat which restrict the passageway of air coming out of the throat.
- This constriction produces the sound of ‘Ocean Waves,’ which we called the Ujjayi sound.
Advance Practice of Ujjayi Pranayama
Once you have developed a sufficient comfort level at practicing the previous steps you can look forward to adding a few more yoga elements to boost the benefits.
1. Ujjayi with Khechari Mudra
Practicing Ujjayi pranayama with Khechari Mudra is suggested especially when you want to increase the calmness and stress relief benefits. The khechari mudra is a very simple maneuver in your mouth, fold your tongue upward and backward so that the lower surface lies in contact with the upper palate. Extend backward with the tip of the tongue, without straining your mouth your tongue. Hold your tongue in this formation and continue with the previously mentioned instructions for Ujjayi Pranayama.
Performing Ujjayi in this way stimulates several pressure points located in the back of the mouth and the nasal cavity. They influence the body by stimulating the Prana and awakens kundalini shakti. It also affects the Vishuddhi chakra.
2. Ujjayi with Internal Retention
Ujjayi Breathing when performed with inner retention or Antar Kumbhaka, it generates additional heat and pulmonary benefits. Internal retention in the simplest term is holding your breath. Holding your breath develops strength in the chest wall muscles, increases lung capacity, and involvement rate of the alveolus to enhance respiration efficiency.
Follow steps 1, 2 & 3 of Ujjayi breathing. In step 4 instead of holding the breath for 2-3 seconds, hold it for a long but comfortable duration. Preferably for 10-15 seconds. As you exhale be gentle and slow. While holding in your breath ensure that your belly is tucked in, chest expanded on all sides, and shoulders not cringing but pressed down.
3. Ujjayi with Bandhas
After you master the Internal Retention, Bandhas can be incorporated with Ujjayi Breathing. The Bandhas incorporate body locks, that create concentrated pressure regions in your body, and accelerating very specific benefits. You can engage in either just the jalandhara bandha, or both jalandhara bandha and moola bandha. These bandhas will have a prominent effect on the flow and harnessing of energy in your body.
For the jalandhara Bandha at the very first step as you prepare your seating, you will tilt your head down and press your chin against the top of your breastbone and hold the lock. Continue with the rest of the Ujjayi breathing steps. This lock will help you cleanse your throat chakra and does ramp up the benefits to your throat muscles, vocal apparatuses, and thyroid and parathyroid glands.
Moola bandha cleanse your root chakra and biologically speaking it increases the flexibility, balance, and strength of the pelvic floor muscles. This body lock will also benefit your hormones, bladder functions, and bowel control. In a way, Moola bandha is a Kegel exercise. Once again as you prepare your seating for Ujjayi Pranayama, before starting the process of inhalation, you will need to contract your perineum muscles upward and hold them in a lock. Initially don’t hold this lock for very long, 5-10 seconds is fine. As a ground rule, relax your perineum muscles once they start to convulse from the lock. You can practice Moola Bandha and Jalandhara Bandha together as well.
When to Practice?
Ujjayi Pranayama can actually be practiced at any time, although the morning and evening hours happen to be the best fit. Although due to the involvement of abdominal movement you should not practice this pranayama on a full stomach.
Note that you can practice Ujjayi in different positions including sitting poses on yoga chair, while sitting in Vajrasana, standing in mountain pose, or lying in Shavasana. Ujjayi in Vajrasana will help in cases of spondylitis and ujjayi in Shavasana will resolve sleep disturbances. Ujjayi pranayama can be a got to solution in few other cases like:
- As a preparatory exercise to focus and concentrate before meditation.
- To calm down the nerves when feeling agitated, restless, nervous, or stressed.
- As a preparatory exercise to increase mind-body ability in performing hatha yoga asana.
Precautions and contradictions
The ujjayi pranayama is apparently, but it has complex impact on your body and mind. Thus you need to ensure to get certain details correct, or else you expose yourself to counter-productive effects.
- Relax the facial muscles while constricting the throat for breathing
- Do not tighten your throat too firmly
- See that the air touches the throat
- Try to maintain the same breathing ratio between exhalation and inhalation
- Don’t do forceful breathing
- Do not practice if you are suffering from migraines or heart diseases. Take proper guidance from an expert yoga teacher.
When You practice Ujjayi with kechari Mudra remember not to strain your face muscles and tongue. And when doing Jalandhara Bandha, remember not to strain your neck muscles, and in Moola Bandha don’t hold up your perineum muscles for too long.
The diaphragmatic breathing of the ujjayi pranayama makes it contraindicated in certain conditions like pregnancy and post abdominal surgery. At a beginner level do not try this breathing exercise for more than 5-7 minutes a day, it can stress your respiratory and cardiac systems. Someone who feels constantly exhausted and dizzy should also avoid Ujjayi breathing. When including Internal retention make sure you don’t have a chronic anxiety disorder, pulmonary or cardiac disorder. Finally, avoid practicing physically intensive or stressful yoga asana after ujjayi pranayama.
To get victory over your prana, you have to develop a habit of being victorious in your daily life too. As ujjayi is also known as “psychic breath,” it has very soothing effects on the mind. Ujjayi not only provides the concentration but also increases endurance and patience.
The functioning of ujjayi has also had a significant effect on Various therapies, for example, in the treatment of insomnia and depression.
It equalizes the breath and increases the oxygenation. It builds up internal heat, which provides warmth to the core and helps in performing physical exercises and yogic postures with ease and efficiency.
Ujjayi breathing had been a great practice among the yogis since Vedic period. It is the need of the modern world, and we should include this beautiful technique of self-care in our daily routine.