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Ujjayi Pranayama Breathing 101

Ujjayi is the breath used in our Vinyasa yoga practice.   While it’s the most critical element of the practice, it is often misunderstood and taught incorrectly.

To help you figure out exactly what Ujjayi is and how to do it, I consulted both the ancient texts of yoga as well as well-known, well-regarded modern teachers.

Ujjayi Sanskrit and What it Means

The pronunciation for Ujjayi is “ooh-JAI-yee”.

Jai means victory so sometimes it is called the “victorious breath”.

BKS Iyengar, in his book, Yoga, The Path to Holistic Health, breaks it down this way:

  • Ut means “Expand”
  • Jaya means “Conquest”
  • Prana means “Life Force”
  • Ayama is “distribution of that force or energy”

Leslie Kaminoff, author of “Yoga Anatomy” states that the “U” refers to Udana—the upward flowing prana in the throat region.

Gregor Maehle, author of “Ashtanga Yoga”, puts it all together this way.  “[it is]the victorious extending of the breath.”

While some texts go on to say that it can destroy both decay and death, we’ll stick to breath extension for now.

Ujjayi Produces Sound

Ujjayi can be said to be softly audible.  It makes a gentle hissing sound.  Max Strom actually calls it “Ocean Breathing” and teaches it by first having students breathe in out of their mouths.

According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is also described as a sonorous sound, meaning it has a full, deep sound associated with it.  The sound comes from the back of the throat.  When you are inhaling think of breathing all the way to the back of the throat versus “sniffing up” air.  Your nostrils are relaxed.  The sound reminds me of wind going through a canyon.

The sound of Ujjayi is NOT like Darth Vadar.  Darth Vadar wore a life support system that had a respirator and a microphone.

How do you do Ujjayi Breathing?

To learn the technique of Ujjayi begin by sitting down.

Take the palm of your hand up to your mouth.  Imagine your hand is a mirror and that you are going to “fog” it up with your breath with your mouth open.  When you do this it produces a clean “hollow” sound kind of like “haaaaaaaaaaa”.  It feels warm against your skin.

The tricky part is making the same sound on the inhale.  You can hold up a hand in front of your mouth and another at the back of your neck—two mirrors.  Try to fog them both up—the exhale fogs up the front mirror, the inhale the back.

Once you are adept at fogging up the mirrors, create the same sound and sensation—by breathing through your nose only.

Breathe in a balanced manner in through the nose and out through the nose.  The inhale and exhale are equal and the quality of sound is even.

Breathing in this way causes a slight constriction of the throat.  The glottis partially closes just like when you whisper speech.  As the air goes in and out it causes a slight “rubbing” sensation of the throat.

Now that you have the feel for the Ujjayi sound, it’s important to add diaphragmatic breathing.

Exhale completely by drawing your abdomen towards your spine.  Inhale by gently releasing the abdomen.  As it goes out it will automatically draw air in.  Start the breath (inhale) as low as you can—the pelvic floor, and “fill” your entire torso full.  The exhale empties the breath from the top down.

Now add chest breathing.

As you inhale, try to fill your chest.  Notice how all four sides of your torso expand in opposite directions.  You can feel this if you place your hands on the sides of your ribs.  As you exhale the air from the chest, all four sides draw in.

Put the two together.

Exhale by drawing in your abdomen towards your spine.  Inhale by releasing your abdomen.  Air comes in.  Begin the Ujjayi at this time.  Direct the air towards your sternum, as this will expand your chest.  As you continue to inhale fill the air all the way to the top of the chest and notice how it widens.

Exhale by relaxing and drawing the abdomen in.  Breathe the air out slowly and rhythmically finishing the Ujjayi breath.

It is important the abdominals are relaxed and soft above your bellybutton, yet firm (not hard) below it.  This allows your diaphragm to move freely.

The breath is never forced or done using strain.  Both are a sign that you are “pushing” too hard and are moving from a place of ego instead of taking care of yourself.

Work to reduce the amount of effort the Ujjayi takes.  It is a strong, deep breath done in a relaxed, even delicate manner.

The Upanishads (sacred ancient teachings yoga derives from—including the Bhagavad Gita) specify that the inhalation should be like drinking water through the stem of a blue water lily—unbroken as though you were drinking through a straw—as if your breath were liquid.  The exhalation is compared to the flow of oil—smooth and uniform as when you poor oil from a ladle.1

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says the breath is felt “from the throat to the heart.”  (2.51) Ujjayi can be a specific practice but it happens spontaneously when concentration deepens.

How is Ujjayi used in Vinyasa yoga practice?

Vinyasa is characterized as being a “flowing” style of yoga where students move from posture to posture.  What guides each movement is the Ujjayi breath.

Movement follows breath.

Gregor Maehle eloquently describes the marriage of breath and movement.  “Let all movement be borne from the waves of the breath rather than allowing the movement to precede, dictate or arrest the breath.”  Think of the waves of an ocean propelling a surfboard forward; if the wave (breath) ends, than the surfboard (movement) stops.  The breath initiates all movement.

Ultimately the breath and movement will be united and move together as one.

Try to spread the breath evenly over the course of your entire movement.  Two common missteps I see are students who run out of breath before the movement is over—because they are taking in the air too quickly—and students who run out of movement before air, indicating you are moving too fast.

Slow down
You move too fast
You gotta make the Ujjayi last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
                        Simon & Garfunkel

What are the benefits of Ujjayi?

Scientific studies have confirmed that breathing slowly tends to calm us and increase “raw awareness”.

  • It lengthens your breath.
  • It strengthens the lungs and diaphragm.
  • It helps to warm to body.

Why is it used in yoga practice?

It is a simple breath that can be done in any position.

It gives you something to focus on.

It helps to keep you safe while practicing asana.  If you stop breathing (holding your breath), you are no longer practicing yoga.  Your concentration wanes and you risk injury.

It helps you to feel ease and relaxation in postures—bringing the quality of “sukha” Patanjali describes in “The Yoga Sutras”.

It happens in real time and thus keeps your awareness in the present.  And isn’t that what the purpose of the physical practice is—to create awareness.

1 Srivatsa Ramaswami

Kate Saal Sacramento Yoga Teacher

Sacramento Yoga Teacher Kate Saal teaches Vinyasa Yoga classes daily in East Sacramento at One Flow Yoga Studio.  She sometimes spends entire days breathing in and out.  You can find her on Google+.




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Kate Saal

Kate Saal

Kate Saal, yoga teacher and educator founded One Flow Yoga® in 2010. She teaches students how to build a modern yoga practice rooted in tradition. Known as a practical, inspiring guide, she shares how to live in a meaningful and fulfilling way.