How to Practice Ujjayi Breath
When beginning to practice yoga, before we can really develop a good understanding of the postures and create a strong practice, we must learn and understand the importance of the breath.
Pranayama is one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is basically like the yoga bible. The breath is the foundation of an asana (movement) practice, so let’s break down how to create and apply an effective ujjayi breath.
Basics, Benefits, and Why We Use Ujjayi Breath
Ujjayi is just one of the many forms of pranayama. Ujjayi means “to be victorious” or “to concur”, so in class it’s sometimes called “victorious breath”. The sound of the breath as it comes in and out of your body sounds like ocean waves, so you might hear teachers describe it as an “ocean sounding breath”.
This style of breathing is practiced by filling and emptying the lungs completely through the nose. There is a slight constriction in the back of the throat, which creates that oceanic sound. This form of pranayama is one that builds internal heat, so we use it to intentionally warm the body from the the inside out. In addition to heating the body, it serves as a way to balance and focus the mind. It is our anchor to the present moment.
Step 1: Begin sitting comfortably with your sits bone rooting down, and your spine lengthening up. Relax all the muscles in your face. Relax the forehead, the eyebrows, and relax your jaw.
Step 2: Open your mouth wide, and slowly begin to inhale through your mouth so you feel the cool air traveling down the back of your throat. Keep your mouth open wide and exhale all the breath out through mouth, as if you were fogging up a mirror with your breath. Keep the back of the throat open. Repeat this a few times and remember to try and make the inhales and exhales slow and deep, but not forceful.
Step 3: Close your mouth, lips softly together and now try slowly inhaling through your nose. Direct the in-breath over the back of the throat so you hear that ocean sound. Open your mouth wide again and exhale through the mouth. Direct the out-breath over the back of the throat so you start to hear a soft hissing or ocean sound. Repeat this 3-4 times.
Step 4: Once you feel comfortable with steps 2 and 3, you can now try to create the same breath, only through the nose: Press your lips gently together. Press the tongue gently down to the base of the mouth, so you feel space between the tongue and the roof of your mouth. Keep the jaw relaxed, so there is space between the teeth. Now inhale through the nose, keep your lips softly together and exhale through your nose. Direct the breath all the way down into the lower belly on the inhale and expel all the breath out of the body on the exhale. Slow, smooth, and long breaths.
Step 5: Keep breathing this way, in through the nose, out the nose, and start to focus on the sound and the feeling of the breath. The sound should be audible to you and audible if there were a person sitting next to you, but not so loud that they could hear you from across the room. Allow the sound and sensation of the breath to become your primary focus in that moment.
Step 6: Focus on the depth of your breathing. Fill your lungs completely on the inhalation and empty the breath completely on an exhalation. Think about breathing a “3 dimensional breath”: As you inhale the breath fills up the torso from the lower belly, all the way up to the collar bones, from the right rib cage all the way across to the left rib cage, and from the front of your body to the back of your body – so you are create a full body breath. Breathe deep and free.
Step 7: Start by practicing ujjayi breathing in a comfortable seated meditation for 5 minutes, and slowly work your way up to 10 or 15 minutes. Keep your eyes closed and let your awareness drop into your body and your breath. Start to apply this when practicing yoga postures (“asanas”) to create what we call “vinyasa” – linking the breath with the movement. In ashtanga or vinyasa yoga, we focus on inhaling to expand or lift up, and exhaling to contract or fold forward. Over time this will become more natural. When applying ujjaji in a movement practice, maintain the connection with the breath and movement. Let the breath be the peacekeeper. The breath moves, the body follows.
Step 8: After you are done, release all control of your breath, lie down, and relax into Savasana (corpse pose) for 5 minutes.
- The breath should sound the same and feel the same as it comes in and out of the body. The breath should be steady and rhythic, deep and smooth.
- There should not be more emphasis on the inhale or exhale. They should be even in length, and even in sensation.
- Continue to keep the jaw relaxed, and the muscles in your face soft. Allow there to be space between the teeth.
- When practiced correctly, ujjayi breath should both energize the body and calm the mind.
- Maintain an even length and rhythm of breath throughout your whole practice.
- Throughout your practice, continuously observe the quality and depth of your breathing. Allow the breath to be your guidepost – let it tell you when to move, and when to rest. If the breath becomes erratic, take a break until you can bring it back to a smooth and steady flow.