Ujjayi

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we systematically present Ujjayi Pranayama.

Objective

Become familiar with teaching considerations and instructions for Ujjayi Pranayama, also known as known as Victorious Breath.

Description

Describe Ujjayi Pranayama and provide a common focal point of concentration. Explain how Ujjayi can help with mindfulness practice and the expected effects that might prompt the practice of Ujjayi. Give instructions for practice.

Introduction

Overview

Ujjayi is the process of narrowing the passageway through which air is moving, allowing the breath to be drawn out and consciously controlled.

  • The practice causes an “ocean wave” or “hissing” sound.
  • Although this breath is done with the nostrils, it can be easier to learn with an open mouth.
  • Ujjayi is often used as the primary breathing practice during asana in Ashtanga, Power, Vinyasa and other styles of yoga.
  • This pranayama practice may be maintained throughout much of practice and, according to Iyengar, is “the only pranayama which can be done at all times of the day and night.” Other experts, however, do not recommend Ujjayi be practiced in all cases.
  • Because Ujjayi has to be created over and over again, a lack of focus on breath can indicate the mind has wandered.

Sound as a Focal Point

  • The sound of Ujjayi is often used as the focal point of concentration for directing and controlling the mind.
  • The sound can make it easier to identify when the breath has become erratic.
  • This awareness can give the student an opportunity to reduce effort, release tension, re-focus on the breath or whatever practice helps to effectively regain steadiness.

Evenness and Rhythm

Most of us think of ujjayi primarily as that sound which is made in the back of the throat, but let’s look a bit more deeply into it. The real essence of ujjayi is not so much the sound that we are making (for ujjayi can be done without any sound) but in the type and quality of the breath that we are making. What we are really after is consistency in the breath: evenness and rhythm. If you look at how people breathe during the course of the day, you will notice a profound lack of evenness; the breath is fast one moment and slow the next, deep here and shallow there…The most basic key to good health and happiness, as the yogis see it, is an evenness in the prana and life-force…

The most effective thing we can do is stabilize our breathing as often as we can and for as long as possible. The way we establish this pattern is practicing ujjayi breathing for the entire length of our practice. In this way, we create awareness of our breath and our prana and consciously attempt to smooth and stabilize our energetic patterns. It is actually the most essential aspect of the yoga practice, regardless of which postures or style or system we work with, for breath and prana are our most essential functions. – Randall O’Leary

Sanskrit

  • “The prefix ‘ud’ means upwards or expanding. It also conveys the sense of preeminence and power. ‘Jaya’ means conquest or success, and, from another point of view, restraint.” (Light on Prãnãyãma 2010 p 123)
  • “Jaya means victory. Ujjayi means victorious or conquering. It is so called because the technique allows us to become victorious in pranayama. Pranayama means extension or stretching of prana, and this is exactly what Ujjayi does.” (Pranayama The Breath of Yoga 2012 p 224)
  • Some say the name of Victory or Victorious is because the practice helps the mind to rise victoriously above its usually restless nature.

A Superior Or Powerful Technique

Ujjayi means ‘to win,’ ‘to conquer,’ ‘to acquire by conquest,’ ‘to be victorious.’ The name is partly suggested, it seems, by the way the aspirant swells her chest out like a proud conqueror, in order to maximize the capacity of her lungs. Hidden in this word is the little prefix ud, which means ‘up,’ in the sense of superiority in place, rank, or power. This also suggest that ujjayi is a superior or powerful technique for liberation, a tool by which the yogis can conquer the forces of ignorance and bondage. – Richard Rosen 

Purpose / Effects

  • Slow down the breath, direct the breath and lengthen the breath.
  • Increase heat, energize.
  • Increase mindfulness and focus.
  • Relieve stress.
  • Some say it cleanses lungs.
  • Support steadiness and endurance.
  • When done in a supported position, it is said to relieve symptoms of high blood pressure.

Expert Readings

Swami Rama

This pranayama enhances the ventilation of the lungs, removes phlegm, calms the nerves, and fills the whole body with vitality. – Swami Rama 

Beryl Bender Birch

Ujjayi is a technique with such powerful benefits that it should be accessible to everyone. It is an essential tool that you will find yourself using in every aspect of your life. People from my classes are always writing, calling, or coming up to me to comment on the effectiveness of the breathing method and how it has helped them to raise mindfulness, birth babies, diminish stress, and appreciate life more fully. – Beryl Bender Birch 

Gregor Maehle

You will find that Ujjayi is a vital tool in slowing down the breath…  Ujjayi certainly helps one to learn to direct the breath, to stretch it long and distribute it evenly to all areas of the body. However, Ujjayi breathing is only pranayama in a preparatory sense… Pranayama is formal sitting practice involving a variety of counted kumbhakas… so Ujjayi during one’s asana practice is not a replacement for formal sitting kumbhaka practice but preparation for it. Ujjayi without kumbhaka cannot by itself bring about the balance of ida and pingala, which is obtained through nadi shodhana pranayama, nor can it bring about the complete cessation of fluctuations of prana, which is obtained through extensive breath retentions. – Gregor Maehle 

Ashtanga Yoga

Ujjayi pranayama… provides the strength required to master every asana. The absorbed prana (energy) can also be used to facilitate body movement, allowing even Yogis with slight builds to seem able to defy gravity and glide through movements almost effortlessly. As the waves form the beach, so too does the breath form the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Your inner waves set the rhythm. The murmuring of your breath becomes the murmuring of your inner ocean while waves of inhalation flood your inner coast… Like a surfer who rides the waves of a real ocean, your inner surf carries you from asana to asana. Your breath directs each movement. – ashtangayoga.info

Lisa Mitchell

The friction of the air passing through the lungs and throat generates internal body heat. It is similar to a massage for the internal organs; as the core becomes warm from the inside, the body becomes prepared for the asana practice. – Lisa Mitchell

Dr. Ronald Steiner

It is said that Yogis can melt snow by using Ujjayi breathing. You might feel heat when first applying this technique. As your practice advances the energy will become more subtle. A quiet but steady force will develop deep inside you with which you will be able to master virtually impossible physical challenges with ease. Superficially, the muscles carry the Yogi through the air. However, it is the breath which provides the necessary prana (energy). – Dr. Ronald Steiner 

Going Deeper

Loud Vibration

In this technique the valve is established by a partial contraction of the glottis. This contraction is used during inhale and exhale. The sound of the vibration at the throat can be so subtle as to be inaudible even to the practitioner or loud enough to be heard by others nearby… The heating effect is intensified as the sound at the throat becomes louder. – Gary Kraftsow 

A Divine Gift

As you breathe in, your body, lungs, brain, and consciousness should be receptive rather than active. Breath is received as a divine gift and should not be drawn in forcefully. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

Calming & Gentle Sound

The sound is quite similar to that of a wave washing up on the shore and then washing back down again. Make sure that the sound is even, calming and gentle. If you strain, you will trigger the sympathetic nervous system and the method will not achieve its aim. – Gregor Maehle 

Smooth & Unbroken

It should emerge from the upper part of your throat and not from the upper or front part of your nose. Because of the resistance of air in your throat, you will find this sound automatically being created. Stretch your inhale and the exhale as much as you can without generating tension anywhere in your body, and let the sound of the breath be smooth and unbroken. – yogawiz.com  

Darth Vader from Star Wars

It is helpful to gently smile while breathing to allow the air to swirl around the back of the throat before continuing its journey to the lungs. This swirling action is what creates the unique sound which has been described as wind in the trees, a distant ocean, a cobra snake or, for the less poetic, Darth Vader from Star Wars. – David Swenson 

Instructions

Open Mouth Version

When introducing the practice to beginners, you may wish to first teach the practice using an open mouth:

  1. Open mouth and exhale slowly.
  2. Softly whisper “hhhaaa.”
  3. Notice that the sound is like listening to the ocean in a shell.
  4. “Feel the air swirl in the back of the throat.” (David Swenson)
  5. Inhale through the nose, making the same sound on inhale.
  6. Repeat and then, eventually, close mouth, continuing to make sound. David Swenson recommends closing mouth midway through exhale, letting air continue exiting through nose instead of mouth.
  7. Don’t sniff. Rather, keep nostrils relaxed.

Fogging Glasses

  1. Another commonly used illustration is to mimic the action of “fogging up” a pair of eyeglasses.
  2. Feel the constriction in the throat and note the sound.

Other Instructions

  1. Inhale with a slight constriction of throat, feeling air on the roof of the palate.
  2. There is a sound like “Darth Vader,” “an ocean wave,” “ssss” or “snoring.”
  3. Exhale slowly, deeply & steadily with the same constriction.
  4. Listen to the sound of the breath, using it as a guide to adjust and synchronize the flow and rhythm of the breath.

Inhale vs Exhale

The breath… consists of the sibilant sah on the inhalation and the aspirate aham on the exhalation. If we combine these two Sanskrit terms… we arrive at soham, the great mantra of prana/prakrti. Soham is one of the so-called mahavakyas (great words) of the Upanishads… Ujjayi is the constant pronunciation of a mantra that proclaims we are not that which change and decays but that which is permanent, immutable, infinite and immortal — pure awareness. – Gregor Maehle 

Experts including Swami Rama, B.K.S. Iyengar and Gregor Maehle express different sounds on inhalation and exhalation. (Light on Yoga 1975 p 247, Light on Pranayama 2010 p 127, Pranayama The Breath of Yoga 2012 p 225 and Science of Breath 1998 p 94)

  • “Sa” sound on inhale
  • “Ha” sound on exhale

Cautions