Ujjayi breath is the most common type of breathing pattern used in yoga, and its meanings are quite profound. Since Jai translates as “victory,” it is often called the “victorious breath.” A deeper meaning examines the syllable “uj” comes from “ud” which means to move upwards.
The name Ujjayi in this sense relates to the prana called “udana," which resides in the region of the throat, and is responsible for involuntary actions such as coughing, sneezing, vomiting, and conscious actions such as speech and expression. Udana vayu also balances the breath that moves through the right and left nostrils, called ida and pingala, and in doing so, merges our mind into super conscious states. Through ujjayi we master involuntary actions of the throat region, voluntary actions of the same region, and harmonize the breath which is constantly coming in and going out. For the Yogis, it is much for than the “ocean breath” or an energizing breath; it is a breath of mastery.
A very common instruction given for ujjayi is to contract the muscles of the vocal cords at the back of the throat to make a whispering or hissing sound. Please do not do this. If you focus on the tightening of the glottis, you will eventually develop tension in your throat and it can lead to problems down the road. The sound is actually made starting from high in the nasal cavity, into the throat and chest. It’s a sound made from these three places together. The throat itself can stay soft and open. The sound and sensation should be pleasant. As well, the sound will change depending on your level of effort. If you are doing very gentle movements, the breath will naturally be quieter, and when your practice demands more output of energy, that’s when the breath can get stronger.
In some yoga systems, this is not called Ujjayi at all, but is referred to as “breathing with sound,” because it is actually a pranayama, done in a specific way. However, by focusing on the sound of your own breath during the practice, your attention will turn inwards. This is the key ingredient of a spiritual practice that over time will help in becoming more in tune with the subtle body. Whether breathing with sound or ujjayi, benefits include:
- Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, making us more relaxed and calm.
- Relaxing into postures beyond our preconceived limits.
- Keeping the mind focused on the present moment, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Preparing for a more formal pranayama practice by deepening and lengthening the breath.
- Bringing awareness to healthier breathing habits.
Just like you build the skillsets of the physical movement in yoga, build strength and stretch for flexibility, the breath is a skillset of its own that with practice, can be mastered too.