11 advantages of ujjayi breath (plus train ideas)
Pranayama is one of the basic practices of Hatha Yoga. It is the cultivation and absorption of prana or life energy in the mind and body. And just like with asana (physical poses), there are many different forms of pranayama that one can practice. One of the most common is the mysterious ujjayi or “oceanic sounding breath”. Incorporating the ujjayi breath into your asana practice can be difficult and feel strange. Still, there are many powerful benefits to using this breathing technique, including linking breath and movement, increasing internal warmth, increasing mental stillness, improving health, and deepening meditation and mindfulness.
What does ujjayi mean?
For most of us, Ujjayi Pranayama is our first introduction to pranayama after simple breath awareness. Ujjayi is an audible breath in which the inhalation and exhalation are long, deep and complete, moving through the nose. Often translated from Sanskrit, Ujjayi means "victorious breath," while others describe it as "ocean breath," named for the "haaaa" or wave-like sound made by the air moving through a narrowed glottis or vocal cords.
Benefits of ujjayi breathing
Most beginners wonder why they sound like Darth Vader during their yoga class. The ocean-sounding breath has many powerful benefits for the body, brain, and heart. The bottom line, however, is that it is of great help with a challenging yoga pose or fast flow. Which of the following 11 benefits have you noticed after using this traditional pranayama?
- Builds up inner warmth
This slow, restricted breathing builds up internal body heat, which makes stretching safer and prepares the body for deeper expressions from yoga poses.
- Promotes cleaning
This controlled diaphragmatic breath massages the internal organs and stimulates the digestive system to aid detoxification and decrease mucus.
- Increases focus and concentration
The Ujjayi breath connects the mind, body and spirit with the present moment and improves concentration. This promotes the richness and depth of your practice and strengthens your presence and awareness.
- Increases vitality
This pranayama is used in many types of yoga classes such as Ashtanga, Jivamukti, and Power Yoga because it promotes stamina, energy, and endurance.
- Combines breath with movement
The ocean breath connects the breath with movement, which helps maintain a steady rhythm in a flow or vinyasa yoga style.
- Reduces stress and tension
This soothing sound releases muscle tension and activates the vagus nerve. This in turn turns on the "rest and renewal" or parasympathetic activity of the nervous system.
- Strengthens the lungs
The partial narrowing of the throat allows less air to pass through, lengthens breathing and improves oxygen saturation. These deep breaths increase the volume of air, strengthen the diaphragm, and improve breathing efficiency.
- Calms the body and mind
ujjayi pranayama lowers blood pressure and slows the heart rate to calm the mind and reduce anxiety.
- Balances the energy channels
Ujjayi Pranayama purifies and stimulates the nadis (subtle channels of the body) and promotes the activation of the sushumna nadi to balance the flow of prana and balance the chakra energy centers. This balancing effect helps to relieve pain, promote healing and harmonize the endocrine system.
- Elevates and stabilizes the mood
The warming, focusing and energizing effects of this pranayam increase the feeling of aliveness and can help to alleviate mild depression.
- Opens the sinuses
The cranial vibration of the ujjayi breath helps open the sinuses to relieve the pressure on the sinuses and the pain from headaches.
Tips for practicing ujjayi
Yogis all have a slightly different view of how this ancient pranayama should be practiced. Many instructors recommend a slight narrowing of the throat which works for some, but the idea of it makes me uneasy. I prefer to think of it as a narrowing of the glottis or the vocal cords. Better still, I like to visualize the breath moving through the vocal cords with every round of inhalation and exhalation. I still get a sound, but it's not particularly loud and it has the same effect: drawing my attention to my breath. The idea is to keep in touch with Ujjayi for the duration of your yoga practice.
No matter what, learning ujjayi breathing takes a lot of practice on and off the mat. And depending on the teacher or class, different yoga practices determine how loud the breath sounds and how it is used.
How loud should ujjayi sound?
In flow or power yoga classes, you may have heard your teacher say something like, "If your neighbor on the mat can't hear you breathing, don't do ujjayi!" Or "Use your ujjayi breath to build warmth and stamina." I had a teacher proclaim, "Old yogis should be able to melt snow with their ujjayi breathing!" It's almost as if Ujjayi's "victorious breath" has become synonymous with victory on the mat with the decibels of your breathing. In fact, I thought that those yogis with the loudest breath must be the most advanced practitioners. I have to admit that I was a little jealous. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't let the "ha" sound over a whisper without feeling like I was trying or forcing myself to do it.
While making the ocean loud enough for others to hear can be helpful in learning and honing your technique, it's more important to find a commitment that is comfortable and sustainable over time. More importantly, failure to take advantage of the aforementioned benefits may be a sign that your technique is adapting.
I've learned that Ujjayi, no matter how loud or quiet, is a means to an end: a helpful way to keep the mind and body focused. My “haaaa” sound may only be audible to me, but I feel an energy and calm when using this technique that is specific to my Ujjayi breath. The rewards for using this challenging pranayama are numerous and grand, but these cannot be realized without discipline, patience, and commitment.