Ujjayi Breathing 101
If you have a physical yoga practice, ujjayi is the breathing technique you need to know.
Even if you don’t do yoga, this technique is still one you should have in your breathing repertoire.
The ujjayi breath, or “victorous breath,” is both calming and re-energizing. I use it during my yoga practice and throughout the day when I need to recenter and focus my mind.
Ujjayi is said to tone the lungs, strengthen the diaphragm, and assist in the healthy flow of prana (life force) throughout the body.
It has made a tremendous difference in my yoga practice, and I use it throughout my entire practice, every time.
Unfortunately, many students are not familiar with this technique or have a poor understanding of how it’s done.
Below, I’ll explain the method and then provide some helpful tips.
Here’s the basic technique:
Begin in a seated position with the spine erect. Sitting upright in a chair will do. Gently pull in your abdominals and the front of your core, from the pubic bone to the breastbone. This is a very subtle action.
Start to breathe in and out through the nose, lengthening both your inhalations and exhalations. Try to make both inhalations and exhalations steady and of equal length.
Allow the chest to expand as you inhale and deflate as you exhale.
Once you have a steady breath going through the nose, gently constrict the muscles in the back of your throat (the glottis). These are the same muscles you use when you whisper. So imagine you’re about to whisper and keep these muscles engaged.
This constriction should cause a hissing or oceanic noise as you breath in and out through your nose. Some think its sounds like Darth Vader, if that helps. If you start to sound like you’re snoring, your are constricting too much.
Relax a little.
It takes practice to achieve the balance of effort with ease (sthira with sukha) that this technique requires.
This balance is what the practice of yoga is about.
Here are some tips that might be helpful to you. Use what works and leave the rest behind:
Take a deep inhalation, then open your mouth and whisper the sound “Ha” slowly and forcefully as you exhale.
Midway, close your mouth and keep pushing the sound out through your nose. The breath pushing against the back of the throat is what makes the sound that we want. Try to make this is as loud as you can. This is the sound you want to achieve on both your inhalations and exhalations. Inhalations are more challenging, so get the method down by working on your exhalations first.
For the inhalation, imagine you are slowly sipping air in through a straw attached to the center of your throat. Remember to gently constrict your glottis as you do this.
Don’t puff out your belly as you breathe. Abdominals are very gently pulled in and chest expands up and out with the inhalations.
Once you are comfortable with this method, experiment with holding the breath for 2 seconds at the top of your inhale. Then exhale completely, and hold the breath for 2 seconds at the bottom of your exhale.
This is called breath retention or kumbhaka. It is in these pauses where it’s believed you can begin to enter a state of “no mind,” a place of complete presence. This is where we want to be most of the time.
The more you practice, the longer you can hold out the retention periods. Never force the retention. It should feel natural and quite effortless. I find these pauses to be extremely calming and comforting, even blissful at times.
If you’re practicing ujjayi outside of a yoga practice, it can be done in a seated position for 5-10 minutes. You’ll need to slowly work your way up to this. I recommend you practice when you’re alone so as not to scare off colleagues, family, or complete strangers. Or if that’s your intention, go for it!
Note: if using ujjayi during a yoga practice, you would not use breath retention unless specifically instructed to do so.
Now whether you practice ujjayi by itself, or as part of your physical yoga practice, the main thing to remember is that it does take practice! If you don’t get it right away, just come back to it and try again. Remember, the exhalations are always easier to get the hang of, so start with those.
Ujjayi can take your practice to another level, both physically and mentally. It did mine. I’d love to hear what it does for you!