What is Ujjayi breathing?
Ujjayi breathing is a technique that falls within the category of Pranayama exercises that normally make up a significant part of a Yoga practice. Pranayama exercises deal with the control of the breath (also known as prana, meaning life force).
Paradoxically, with an exercise like Ujjayi, we learn to set the breath free within our bodies by controlling it for a short period of time. Ujjayi breathing is commonly associated with a Hatha Yoga practice, but it can also be used on its own or incorporated into other physical practices.
Why do we use this technique?
Practicing this technique offers us a number of benefits, both mental and physical, that we can take from our Yoga mats into our daily lives. First of all, by reducing tension, frustration, agitation and the like, it promotes a calm, peaceful state of mind. On the physical side, it helps our bodies regulate our blood pressure and brings balance to our cardiovascular system. Smooth, controlled, even breathing such as this also helps us release toxins that we’ve picked up from our environment (the air, water, food and so on) from the body.
In addition, Ujjayi helps us maintain accurate postures (asanas) for fairly long periods of time during our Hatha Yoga practice, but as mentioned, its use isn’t limited to Yoga. We can practice Ujjayi breathing anytime we feel anxious, stressed, fatigued or otherwise uncomfortable.
How to perform the Ujjayi breathing technique
Sit in a comfortable position
Before you begin, make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable position on a flat surface. Most people choose to sit with their legs crossed. Ensure that your back is straight, your hands are on your knees with your palms up and you’re looking slightly downward. Once you’re in a proper position, close your eyes and simply breathe normally through your nose to start.
More experienced practitioners can practice this technique while in a Yoga asana such as downward-facing dog. However, it’s best for beginners and novices to start with the seated position above and work their way up to using Ujjayi during asanas, perhaps beginning with a simpler asana such as a seated forward bend or butterfly pose.
Deepen breath and constrict throat
Next, take a slightly deeper inhale than you normally would through your nose, and as you exhale slowly, constrict the muscles of your throat. If you have trouble doing this, open your mouth and try making a “HAAAAAA” sound as you exhale—that’ll help you access those muscles at the back of the throat. Try the same thing on the inhale.
Continuing inhaling and exhaling in whatever manner you’ve chosen (mouth open or closed), keeping in mind that you should only be gently and partially closing your throat as you do so, as opposed to completely closing it off. The latter option will only promote the holding of the breath, which is what this practice is meant to take us away from.
Practice for 5 to 10 minutes
Once you’ve gotten the hang of throat constriction, and your breathing feels smooth, with each inhale and exhale a bit lengthier than usual, continue this technique for five to 10 minutes. After 10 minutes have passed, lie down in corpse pose or Savasana for at least a few minutes, even if you’ll be continuing on to asanas or any other physical activity after that.
After you’ve practiced this technique several times, you can set a goal of using it for longer than 10 minutes at once, working your way up to using it during your asanas or even an entire Yoga session.
How do you know if you’re doing it right?
If you’re performing this breathing technique correctly, you’ll hear a sound similar to that of ocean waves rolling in and out when you listen to your inhales and exhales. If there’s any gasping or sputtering, you’re likely constricting the muscles in your throat too much. Remember, a hallmark of this practice is relaxation, so if you’re trying too hard instead of staying relaxed, you won’t be comfortable or reap all the benefits it has to offer.
Want to learn more about Hatha Yoga or enhance your current practice? Check out our Hatha Yoga Poses Chart with 60 common poses»