In a mixed level class, it can be a challenge to introduce pranayama (breathing techniques), as new students are often mystified by the whole “yoga” experience. Learning the terms and the basic postures may be overwhelming enough for a new practitioner. “Now I have to do some special breathing?” “No, just breathe,” I remind them. As their practice progresses, the student becomes increasingly open to various facets of the yoga world. One of these facets, Ujjayi pranayama, brought a pivotal change in my practice years ago.
Ujjayi is a Sanskrit word meaning “victorious.” I like to think of Ujjayi breathing as bringing victory over imbalanced energy. The victorious concept also refers to the upward movement of the breath. It has been said that practicing Ujjayi breathing will bring a certain heat and energy to the muscular system, allowing for increased stamina and strength for a yoga practice, and at the same time bringing a relaxing sensation to the body and focus to the mind. Ujjayi is a great tool to indicate the quality of a yoga practice. Forceful breath can be an indication of an overstrained asana, giving the yogi a signal to back out of the pose or take a variation. Lazy, inactive breath may be a sign of an unfocused practice. In our yoga practice and in our lives we want to find a balance between the assertive and yielding energies, and Ujjayi aids this. Ujjayi breathing also brings a focus and awareness to the present, and to the physical and mental self. Ujjayi can promote physical balance in the asanas as well.
Ujjayi can bring some focus in reference to the chakras. As mentioned above, the breath is taken in to the low belly, mid belly, and then the chest. The deep low belly massages the Root and Sacral chakras, the mid belly activates the Solar Plexuschakra, and the chest breath moves the Heart and Throat chakras.
Erich Schiffmann, author of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, has written a beautiful chapter in his book about breath philosophy, titled The Wind Through the Instrument. Check out this awesome resource for a deeper understanding of yoga, breath, and life.
Because of the sound associated with it, Ujjayi is also known as hissing breath, ocean breath, and even Darth Vader breath.
To practice and perform Ujjayi breathing:
Find a comfortable posture with proper alignment, gently engaging mula bandha. (Tall spine, grounded feet or sitbones, relaxed shoulders and open chest.)
Begin breathing through the nose into low belly, mid belly, chest, and exhaling chest, mid belly, low belly. Continue the cycle for at least 4 breaths, then bring the focus to the low back, mid back, and upper back, continuing for at least 4 cycles. With each cycle of breath, let the spine grow longer.
From this relaxed and focused state, begin to employ Ujjayi breath by gently opening the lips and softly whispering “HAAAAAAAHHHHH” on an exhale. Feel the breath on the back of the throat, and focus on the sound.
As you are comfortable, close the lips and let the “HAAAAAHHH” continue to come from the throat as the breath moves in and out through the nose. On the inhales, you may notice a “SSSSSSSSSS” sound from the throat.
HAAAAAHHH SSSSSSSSS HAAAAHHH SSSSSSSSS…. waves of the ocean. Feel the deepness of this breath, as opposed to simply sniffing through the nose into the chest. Awesome!
With time and practice, the breath cycle can become longer. Avoid forcing the breath. Don’t be afraid to make noise, or even sigh as you release an asana with the breath, but don’t try to make it loud. Just let it be YOUR breath sound, like the seashell against your ear.
For biology people, here is another description on the technique, using scienc-y words like larynx and glottis.
Enjoy practicing and utilizing Ujjayi breath. As you become more comfortable using it throughout a yoga practice, you will see, feel, (hear?) the many benefits described above, as well as benefits that are prescribed just for YOU!
May the prana be with you! Do you practice Ujjayi breath during yoga? How about during rush hour traffic?