Have you ever been asked to start ‘Ujjayi breathing’ in a yoga class and wondered what that was? Or perhaps you’ve heard students around you breathing like Darth Vader and wondered why? Ujjayi is a staple Pranayama (breathing) technique and often used in vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga classes, but what is it and how do you do it?
What is it?
Ujjayi is often translated from the Sanskrit to mean ‘victorious’. Like most (but not all) breaths in yoga, you inhale and exhale through the nose, but with Ujjayi you gently engage, or constrict, the back of the throat. As you breathe, the breath vibrates softly making a hhhhhh sound on both the inhalations and the exhalations. It is sometimes called oceanic breath as the sound echoes the calming sound of the sea lapping in and out on the shore.
Why use it?
- Soothes the nervous system: Gently constricting the back of the throat allows the breath to naturally become longer. Long, slow, rhythmic breathing calms the nervous system and helps to tone the vagus nerve (as the lungs expand against it) which sends messages around the body from the brain, encouraging it to relax.
- Energises: Ujjayi breath energises as well as relaxes. It warms the breath as it enters the body, in turn helping to warm the body and prepares it for asanas, or postures.
- Focuses the mind: Ujjayi is a conscious breath. Keeping your mind focussed on Ujjayi and the soothing sound of the breath has a calming effect and helps keep the mind focused and steady. When we lose our focus, the Ujjayi stops. When we notice that we can no longer hear the soft rhyhmn of the breath, we can gently re-engage the throat and come back to the breath.
- Helps build endurance: It’s a great breath to turn to when you are holding a challenging pose on the yoga mat, or when you are faced with challenges or stressful situations off the mat, in your daily life. Taking a moment to regulate the breath and focus the mind calms nerves and keeps us steady when we need it most.
Tips for Ujjayi
- Allow you breath to become relaxed first.
- It should feel calming and soothing. It requires some effort, but not too much. If the breath feels strained, see if you can soften the throat to allow the breath to be relaxed and smooth.
- It should be deep. Without straining, allow the breath to fill the lungs completely on the inhalation and empty the lungs completely on the exhalation.
- If your mind wanders and you find it hard to keep Ujjayi breath going, don’t worry. It will become natural with practice.
Not just for yoga classes
Although traditionally practised on the yoga mat to help link different postures in flowing styles of yoga, Ujjayi can be used any time to help calm the nerves or focus the mind. Try it and see…