The word "ujjayi" is derived from the Sanskrit root "ji" (जि) with the prefix "ud" (उद्) added to it. So the combined root is "ujji" (उज्जि) which means "to be victorious". Ujjayi (उज्जायी), thus means "one who is victorious" and "ujjayi breath" would mean "the victorious breath".
Because of the various benefits it provides (listed below), Ujjayi is highly recommended as the breathing technique to be used during any of the yoga practices (asana or pranayama) that require you to breathe deeper than your natural breath. For example, while practicing Sun Salutation, it is recommended that each movement be made slowly and synchronized with the appropriate deep inhalation or exhalation. In this case, since the breathing is slow and deep, Ujjayi is recommended for each breath. Similarly, while practicing pranayama techniques involving deep breathing, like the "alternate nostril breathing" called "Naadi Shuddhi", it is recommended to use the ujjayi breath.
Ujjayi is practiced while breathing through the nose but narrowing the throat by partially closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of your voice box) thus producing a slight hissing sound (it may also be compared to a light snoring sound or the sound of an ocean wave). This sound is a result of friction of the incoming or outgoing air at the base of the throat and not from friction in the nostrils. Let that sound become your teacher. Listen to the tone of that voice as you inhale and exhale, and make that tone as even and smooth as you can, without any catches or wavering and without any change in pitch. The sound should be soft and gentle and only you should be able to hear its sound. Listening to the voice of ujjayi pranayama will give you greater sensitivity and control over the nuances of your breath.
At first, you may wonder exactly how to manipulate this epiglottal valve at the root of your throat. Here are a couple of methods which can help you learn this action.
- Just sigh, and notice the slight constriction in your throat that occurs. That’s the area you need to control when you’re practicing ujjayi.
- Open your mouth and inhale softly, noticing where the breath touches your throat. For most people, that will be deep down at the base and back of the throat. Again, that’s the spot you need to constrict slightly to practice ujjayi. After you’ve zeroed in on this area, close your mouth and inhale, letting the breath touch your throat there. Once you can inhale in this way, practice exhaling with the same constriction of the epiglottis.
- Another technique that you can use to experience Ujjayi is to hold your hand up to your mouth and exhale as if trying to fog a mirror. Inhale the same way. Notice how you constrict the back of the throat to create the fog effect. Now close your mouth and do the same thing while breathing through the nose.
Benefits of Ujjayi
Ujjayi is a tranquilizing breath and also has a heating effect on the body. This practice is used in yoga therapy to soothe the nervous system and calm the mind. It has a profoundly relaxing effect at the psychic level. It helps to relieve insomnia and may be practiced in shavasana just before sleep. The basic form without breath retention and bandhas slows down the heart rate and is useful for people with high blood pressure. Ujjayi alleviates fluid retention. It removes disorders of the dhatu, which are the seven constituents of the body: blood, bone, marrow, fat, semen, skin and flesh.
Another benefit of Ujjayi is that it naturally makes each breath slightly deeper than your normal deep breath. When you use ujjayi during asana practice to synchronize movement with the deeper breath, it brings about a deeper sense of awareness and mindfulness of the effect of the stretch.