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 involve deeper than your natural breaths. 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 the pranayama technique called the "alternate nostril breathing" or "Naadi Shuddhi", the ujjayi breath is recommended.
I am pleased to present this video demonstration of the Ujjayi breath and the Ujjayi Pranayama.
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. In contrast, during normal breathing, friction happends in the nostrils. Let the Ujjayi 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 breath will give you greater sensitivity and control over the nuances of your breath.
Here are a couple of methods which can help you learn this technique.
- 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 and exhale making a gentle sound as you breathe in and out. Notice 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.
As mentioned above, in Ujjayi breath, while breathing in and out through the nose, we constrict the passage of air at the base of the throat area, the epiglottis, which makes a slight hissing, ocean wave like sound.
In Ujjayi Pranayama, we combine the elements of both the Ujjayi breathing technique as well as the deep three part breathing into each breathing cycle.
- 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.
- 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
Further inhaling, lift 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, apply the Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock) by lowering the chin down to the chest, as well as the Mula Bandha (Root Lock).
- When you are ready to exhale, release the two locks.
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 is a tranquilizing breath and also has a heating effect on the body, stimulating the process of oxidation.
- 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
- Helps in case of asthma.
- 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.
- Ujjayi 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.
Avoid breath retention if you are suffering from heart disease or low blood pressure.