You might have heard the phrase ‘ujjayi pranayama’, or ‘ujjayi breath’, spoken by a yoga teacher in class. It’s not always easy to get your head around breathing techniques when they’re taught quickly at the beginning of a yoga practice — so we’ve put together this simple guide to help you understand and experiment with ujjayi breath.
Our intention? To give you everything you need to begin integrating this powerful breath into your yoga practice.
What Is Ujjayi Pranayama?
Ujjayi is usually translated from Sanskrit as ‘victorious’. And that’s a good description of how ujjayi breath feels: it is audible with a steady, flowing sound, and gives a sense of being proud of your existence in this body, with the confidence to take up space.
These long, smooth breaths are taken through the nose, while the back of the throat is slightly closed; so those nose breaths become louder.
The sound of this breath is likened to numerous things by different teachers, some of which might make sense to you, while others probably won’t.
Some teachers tell students to “sound like Darth Vader.” Some say “make a sound like waves of the ocean,” and personally, I often ask students to work on making a ‘Haaaa’ sound on the inhale and exhale, but with the mouth closed. More on that later!
What Are the Benefits?
Ujjayi pranayama, when practiced effectively, serves as a thread that ties the entirety of a yoga practice together.
The sound of the breath becomes your guide: because you can hear and feel when the breath is steady and long, and you can hear when it starts to become short or laboured.
That can be a signal reminding you to dial your practice back and reconnect breath to movement.
Once you’ve got the hang of this breathing technique, it does a number of important things:
- Creates and maintains heat, and helps to sustain a consistent energetic level from the first to the last breath of your practice
- Focuses the mind on the practice — improving concentration and enhancing awareness
- Increases strength and endurance. Practising yoga with ujjayi breath feels very different from practising without it, both in your mind (giving you the support to hold postures), and in your body (settling the nervous system, which helps to minimize feelings of uncertainty or panic when you encounter a challenging posture or flow)
- Allows you to focus and direct the breath to particular areas when needed, creating a sensation of stability and steadiness
Don’t worry if you don’t experience any of the above when you first start working with ujjayi pranayama. It takes time to integrate breath with movement and asana — but when it clicks, your practice will expand into new depths.
Are There any Risks?
Ujjayi breath is a safe pranayama practice for most people; but there are a few things to be aware of.
Students should avoid practising ujjayi if they:
- Are pregnant. This is because of ujjayi pranayama’s heat-building effect, it’s generally advised to avoid high body temperatures while pregnant.
- Feel dizzy or sick when working with ujjayi. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should never practice this breathing technique again, but if you notice it makes you feel unwell, return to a natural breath.
- Have recently had a migraine, or feel a migraine coming on
Any students with existing heart conditions should seek their physician’s advice before practising ujjayi breath.
How Do You Do it?
To get used to the sensations of ujjayi pranayama, start by practising it in a comfortable seated position, rather than during a yoga class.
- Find your comfortable seat. Ideally, the hips are higher than the knees; so sit on a block, bolster, or a couple of cushions if you need to. A chair is fine too. Sit tall, shoulders over hips, and base of the skull lifted — so the chin is just slightly tucked in towards the chest and the back of the neck is long.
- Close your eyes and take a few easy, natural breaths.
- On an exhale, open the mouth and make an audible, breathy and long ‘Haaaaaa’ sound. Inhale normally through the nose. Repeat five times.
- Repeat again, but this time, close the mouth in the middle of the exhale, but continue to make the ‘Haaaa’ sound with the mouth closed. That’s the sound of ujjayi — with a slight constriction at the back of the throat caused by the ‘Haaa’. Repeat five times.
- Try doing the same on the inhale. This is usually more difficult to begin with; but again, make the ‘Haaaa’ sound five times with the mouth open on each inhale, then begin to close the mouth halfway through.
- Finally, do this with the mouth closed for the entire inhale and exhale. Over time, the ‘Haaaa’ can become less pronounced, but it’s a useful way to practice the muscular technique in the throat and mouth that allows you to develop a strong and steady ujjayi breath.
It might not click right away. Practice, and when you feel ready, start to introduce movement by lifting the arms and stretching up with each inhale, and then folding forwards with each exhale.
Still doesn’t make sense? Don’t let it become a stress in your practice or life. This breathing technique often begins to occur naturally, without effort, after months or years of practice. Try not to force it.
Breathe deep and be well.