The most commonly used breathing technique in yoga classes is Ujjayi pranayama, or ocean breath. Characterized by its slow whispery sound that often accompanies postures, sun salutation, and flow sequences, it is calming and warming for the body.
From ancient practices to modern interpretations, Ujjayi breathing benefits are far-reaching and have stood the test of time. But why is this form of yogic breathing a staple in contemporary yoga classes, and why we should practice it?
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- The origins of Ujjayi breath as a pranayama practice
- What is Ujjayi breath?
- How do you do it?
- When to use ujjayi breath in yoga practice as well as off the mat
- Ujjayi breath benefits
“Each breath you take can remind you to be here now, to treat this moment as important, and repeatedly to affirm the fact that right now you are exactly where you want to be, doing exactly what you want to be doing.”Erick Schiffmann
What Does Ujjayi mean?
Ujjayi is pronounced oo-jai. The Sanskrit word can be translated as “one who is victorious” or “victorious breath.” It can be interpreted in various ways, some of which include:
- Victorious breath
- Ujjayi pranayama
- Breath of the conqueror
- Ocean breath
- Snake breath
- Whispering breath
What is pranayama?
Breath is one of the few things within the body that happens without our input, and that we can also manipulate. It is just that – the manipulation of the breath. Pranayama can be translated as energy restraint:
- prana – energy or life force
- yama – restraint
Traditionally breath was considered a way to control the mind and often a more crucial tool for gaining control over the mind than asana. This is a testament to the fact that breath should not be overlooked as secondary to asana, but should be the foundation of our posture practice.
Origins of Ujjayi Breathing
Pranayama is part of Patanjali’s esteemed Eight Limb system. Viewed as a systematic progression towards samadhi, we can see that asana was considered a precursor to pranayama.
- Yama – restraints
- Niyama – observances
- Asana – posture
- Pranayama – breath control
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – enlightenment
Pranayama practices are an integral part of hatha yoga practices. Ujjayi breath is one of the eight Kumbhakas or breath retentions, of hatha yoga (not to be confused with Hatha) found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. They are:
- Surya Bhedana – right nostril breathing
- Ujjayi – victorious breath
- Sitali – breathing through a rolled tongue
- Bhastrika – bellows breath
- Brahmari – bumble bee breath
- Murccha – third eye breathing
- Plavini – floating breath
“When the Breath wanders, the Mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.”– Hatha Yoga Pradipika
What is Ujjayi breath?
Ujjayi breathing is often an introductory pranayama practice. Considered calming, balancing, and warming, it is accessible for most people and can be practiced just about anywhere.
Also called one-to-one breathing, this diaphragmatic breath technique is performed by inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils for identical lengths. There is no breath retention or pause between the full inhales and exhales.
Known for its sibilant sound, it is recognized by creating a gentle constriction of the throat, which gives it a whispering sound and the name “ocean breath.”
Sama Vritti and coherent breathing
The underlying principle behind Ujjayi pranayama is sama vritti (“equal mental fluctuation breathing), also known as coherent breathing. This “even breath in” and “even breath out” or one-to-one breath without the constricted throat was explored by James Nestor, author of the book Breath. He found that
“the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same pattern of the rosary. The results were profound, even when practiced for just five to ten minutes a day.”– James Nester
How do you do Ujjayi Breath?
Ujjayi breathing requires three things:
- Inhaling and exhaling through the nose
- Making the inhale and exhale the same length without retention or pause
- Constricting the glottis to make a whispering or haaa sound
Most people don’t have a problem getting their head around the first two parts of the technique, but the restriction of the throat can take a little getting used to, especially for beginners, so here are some “how to” tips:
To learn how to constrict the throat and make the sound follow these steps.
- Breathe in through your nose and when you exhale, open your mouth and imagine you are trying to fog up a mirror so that you make a haaaa sound.
- Now inhale and exhale through your nose but try and recreate a soft haaaa sound on the exhale with your mouth closed.
- For full ujjayi breath, create an inverted version of the haaaa exhale on the inhale too.
It’s important to note that the throat should not be tense when doing this breath. The throat should be restricted slightly, but it should not feel forced or hard to breathe, and you should never feel dizzy or faint.
To ensure that the inhale and exhale are the same length, you can begin by counting the breath in and out. Remember, there should be no gaps between the breaths; one part should flow easily into the next, like going around in a circle.
Most practitioners will find it easier to learn ujjayi breath seated or lying down before incorporating it into their asana practice, especially if they practice a vigorous vinyasa style.
When to use Ujjayi breath
In a Yoga Practice
- Held poses – Ujjayi breathing helps us to stay embodied and focused during static postures.
- Vinyasa – Ujjayi pranayama links breath to movement and is frequently used in sun salutations.
- Meditation – Ujjayi aids concentration and present moment awareness.
- Mantra – The repetitive ocean breath noise can act as a focal sound mantra that aids concentration and meditation.
Off the Mat
- Anxious or nervous? – Ujjayi breath helps to down-regulate the nervous system, which can produce a calming effect on the body and mind.
- During exercise – It’s reported that Ujjayi can “improve respiratory efficiency” when training and during aerobic exercise.
- Embodiment and interoception – Ujjayi pranayama can help us to feel more connected to our bodies and the sensations within ourselves.
19 Ujjayi breath benefits
Ujjayi is said to bring a sense of calm to the mind and body by influencing the cardiorespiratory system. While clinical research is still sketchy on ujjayi breathing, there is a rich catalog of reported subjective benefits and some scientific reports, which include:
- Its effect on the autonomic nervous system and the ability to down-regulate to rest and digest
- Increasing oxygen in the blood
- Regulating blood pressure
- Building internal body heat and energy
- Releasing tension
- Manipulating prana
- Facilitating a rhythmic asana practice
- Increasing present moment awareness
- Improving concentration
- Reducing edema (water retention)
- Balancing hypothyroidism
- Reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Freeing up existing breath patterns and creating new ones
- A warming effect on the body produced by the friction created in the throat
- Increases muscular energy and stability in the core
- Cleansing effects due to nose breathing
- Improving oxygen saturation
- Promoting cardiac-vagal baroreflex sensitivity
- Regulating body temperature
James Nestor to breath as being a hack for the nervous system as well as nose breathing being imperative for health and sleep.
Ujjayi breath also helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, which can help us feel soothed and calm, turn off our reactive sympathetic state, and improve heart rate variability.
Which styles of yoga commonly use Ujjayi breath?
Most styles of yoga have their own approach to breathing, but methods such as Ashtanga Vinyasa, Jivamukti, and Vinyasa Flow tend to incorporate Ujjayi breath more than others. The reasoning behind this is the focus on sun salutations and the use of one breath, one movement within the sequence.
Teachers will often instruct the breath and movement, while others will embellish the directions and give more detailed cues. Some simply instruct the rhythm of the inhale and exhale, especially with more seasoned practitioners.
Who shouldn’t do Ujjayi?
Those with high blood pressure are encouraged not to practice Ujjayi breath, as are those who are pregnant, but as always, seek out an experienced teacher and find out more from them.
Despite being rooted in various historical methods, Ujjayi pranayama, or ocean breath, is the most common breath control technique used in yoga today. This simple breathing practice can be used both on and off the mat as well as a practice in its own right. Key things to remember are:
- The method requires equal inhalation and exhalation through the nose while constricting the throat.
- Ujjayi breath benefits are vast and contribute to the health of the body and mind.
- Ujjayi is a meditative practice to control the mind.
Find out more
If you want to learn more about the science and practice of breath, check out James Nestor and Dr. Richard Brown.
Want to find out more about traditional yoga techniques and practices? Check out the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.