In a previous article, I wrote about the breathing technique called the Ujjayi breath. In this breath, while breathing in and out through the nose, we constrict the passage of air at the base of the throat area, the glottis, which makes a slight hissing, ocean wave like sound. In normal breathing the friction of the air happens at the tip of the nostrils. In Ujjayi, we allow the friction to happen at the glottis area and not in the nostrils. Because of the constriction of the passage of air, the Ujjayi breath allows us to prolong the duration of each breath. Moreover, the gentle hissing sound has a very calming effect on the nerves and the mind.
In another article, I also talked about the deep three part breathing wherein we engage the full capacity of the lungs for each breath. We do this by bringing awareness to the three segments of the lungs – the top, middle and the bottom and consciously breathe into those areas. Thus, at the end of inhalation, the lungs are completely filled to capacity. At the end of exhalation, we allow the lungs to become fully empty of all air.
In today’s practice, the Ujjayi Pranayama, we combine the elements of both the Ujjayi breathing technique as well as the deep three part breathing into each breathing cycle.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the guiding text for all Hatha Yoga practices, Ujjayi Pranayama is one of the eight breathing practices that involve kumbhaka (breath retention). Here is a translation of the three shlokas (2.51, 2.52 and 2.53) that describe this technique:
Keeping the mouth closed, inhale with control and concentration through both Ida and Pingala (both nostrils). While inhaling, allow the breath to make a soft, hissing sound and feel its movement from the throat to the heart. (shloka 2.51)
At the end of inhalation, do kumbhaka (breath retention) and then exhale with the same soft sound through Ida (left nostril). This removes phlegm from the throat and stimulates the digestive fire. (shloka 2.52)
This pranayama, called Ujjayi, can be practiced while sitting, standing or even walking. It removes swelling due to water retention and any ailments of the stomach and the nervous system (shloka 2.53).
- If you are just beginning the practice of pranayama, it is advisable to avoid breath retention. Once you have practiced basic pranayama techniques for at least 6 to 8 weeks, you can start working with breath retention.
- For most deep breathing practices, it is recommended that you try to make the duration of exhalation twice as long as that of inhalation. This, however, should not be done at the expense of discomfort or strain in breathing. If 1:2 ratio does not feel comfortable, just try to make exhalation longer than inhalation and gradually work toward the recommended ratio.
- The duration of breath retention after inhalation should be such that it does not cause any strain during exhalation. At all time, the effort should be to maintain the same ratio between inhale:exhale as without retention. For example, let us say your normal deep breathing pattern, without retention, is 5 sec inhalation followed by 8 sec exhalation. When you introduce breath retention, these numbers should remain the same.
- Increase the duration of breath retention gradually, over a period of time. The recommended ratios of inhalation:retention:exhalation are: 1:1:2, 1:2:2, 1:4:2. So, your initial objective is to get to the first indicated ratio of 1:1:2. Keep in mind that the ration between inhalation:exhalation should always remain 1:2 irrespective of the duration of retention.
In this entire practice, both inhalation and exhalation are done using the ujjayi breathing technique – constricting the flow of breath at the base of the throat, the glottis area.
- Sit in any comfortable cross-legged posture, keeping the spine upright, eyes closed, and arms and shoulders relaxed.
- Watch the flow of breath at the tip of the nose for a few breaths. Then take a couple of gentle, deep breaths to develop a deeper awareness of the breath and its flow.
Begin the practice with a deep 3-part inhalation through both the nostrils. In this breathing, begin by bringing the awareness to the lowest part of the lungs, using the diaphragm to fill the belly like a balloon. Continue the inhalation by expanding the chest and the ribcage, and further inhaling, lifting the collar bones up. Make sure that the breathing remains soft, continuous and causes no strain of any kind at all.
At the end of inhalation, hold the breath (kumbhaka) for a few seconds, following the guidelines mentioned above. While holding the breath, lower the chin down to the chest in the gesture of Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock).
When you are ready to exhale, release the chin lock. Using the Vishnu Mudra with the right hand, close the right nostril with the right thumb and breathe out through the left nostril. Again, for exhalation also use soft, deep, Ujjayi breathing technique, engaging the three segments of the lungs in the reverse order – first soften the upper chest, then middle chest and finally, at the end of exhalation, suck the belly in to create a cavity in the abdomen.
Continue the practice for about 5-7 minutes or a duration that you are comfortable with.
- Ujjayi has a tranquilizing effect as it soothes the nerves and calms the mind
- It has a mild heating effect, stimulating the process of oxidation
- Increases the durations of inhalation and exhalation and improves lung capacity
- Helps in case of asthma
- Has a relaxing effect at the psychic level
- Helps relieve insomnia and can be practiced in shavasana just before going to sleep
- Slows the heart rate and helps with hypertension
Avoid breath retention if you are suffering from heart disease or low blood pressure