We tend to think of Ujjayi as the pranayama of vinyasa yoga. Although this is one way to practice, Ujjayi can also be used to help you meditate. It’s the most versatile of all pranayama, because you can practice it lying down, sitting, standing, and of course, while flowing.
Ujjayi means the psychic breath because it helps the mind tap into subtle states. It also means victorious breath: ji (to conquer) and ud (bondage). Hence, it’s a practice used to free the mind from bondage and to become victorious over one’s thoughts.
Ujjayi makes a great alternative to meditation because the breath is audible and also tangible. You can actually feel it tracing the back of the throat. This sensory immersion helps the mind to become absorbed in the breath, allowing you to streamline the thought process to improve focus and concentration.
Why practice Ujjayi pranayama?
- Tranquilizes the mind
- Soothes the nervous system
- Relieves insomnia
- Slows down the heart rate (good for those with high blood pressure)
- Mimics deep sleep
- Removes phlegm
- Gives relief in circulatory system diseases
- Helps in letting go of the past
- Improves thyroid functioning for hypothyroid conditions
- Balances the vata and pitta doshas
Ujjayi is the only pranayama exercise that can be practiced on a full stomach. There are also no time restrictions; it can be practiced day or night. And to add to its versatility, Ujjayi can be done standing, sitting, or lying down. This is what makes it safe to pair with the flowing postures of vinyasa yoga. Nevertheless, beginners should first master belly breathing and yogic breathing before embracing Ujjayi in their asana practice.
Ujjayi is all about what’s happening in the throat. While it can be practiced in many different positions, we’ll go through the steps while sitting in a traditional meditation posture.
- 1. Sit comfortably in any meditation posture, whether it be Sukhasana (Easy pose), Vajrasana (Thunderbolt pose), Padmasana (Lotus pose), or Siddhasana (Accomplished pose). Lift the crown of the head toward the sky to lengthen the spine and bring the chin parallel to the earth. Close the eyes.
- 2. Rest the palms on the knees in Jnana mudra with the thumb and index fingers touching, other fingers extended. This creates a circuit that directs prana toward the brain.
- 3. Take three natural breaths through the nose. Fill the belly with each inhalation and feel the belly draw toward the spine with each exhalation.
- 4. Gently contract the back of the throat (the glottis) and inhale slowly through the nose. This creates a soft snoring sound in the throat. Keeping the throat contracted, exhale slowly through the nose. Each breath should be long, deep, and practiced with awareness. When first learning Ujjayi, the breath is usually quite audible. With practice, it becomes so subtle that it’s only audible to the practitioner themselves.
- 5. Practice Ujjayi for 3-5 minutes, concentrating on the sound of the breath.
- 6. End on an exhalation and return to natural breathing.
Breath retention: Slowly increase from five minutes of Ujjayi to 10, or even 20 minutes. Then learn to practice with Antar Kumbhaka (inner breath retention). Inhale using an Ujjayi breath, then pause for a second or two before exhaling. Master this rhythm before retaining the breath any longer.
Khechari mudra: To take things a step further, practice Khechari mudra along with Ujjayi. Mudras are energetic locks that redirect the flow of prana. In Khechari, the tongue is folded upward so the back of the tongue rests on the upper palate with the tip as far back as possible. Practice Ujjayi for five minutes with the tongue folded. Release the tongue if it gets tired and take up the mudra again when it feels rested.
Khechari mudra also stimulates pressure points at the back of the mouth while massaging glands and stimulating hormone secretion. Khechari can also allow the yogi to capture the drops of nectar falling from the Bindu to the throat chakra. This nectar is believed to rejuvenate the body.
Mantra meditation: Another option for advancing Ujjayi is to pair the breath with mantra. One of the most beautiful matching mantras is soham or hamso, meaning “I am that”. Mentally recite so on the inhalation and ham on the exhalation. Try it the other way around, too; ham on the inhalation and so on the exhalation. Use this as a meditation in itself or along with asana.
The anatomical cue “constrict the glottis” won’t mean much to yoga students. There are far better ways to explain this practice to beginners. Try one of these phrases:
- Open your mouth and exhale as if you’re fogging a mirror. Hear your breath. Inhale and make the same sound. Now close your mouth and continue to breath in the same way, as if you’re fogging a mirror.
- Make your breath sound like Darth Vader’s. Audible, labored, and like the sound of deep sleep.
- Imagine that you are breathing in and out of a small hole in the front of the throat rather than through the nostrils.
When teaching students Ujjayi for the first time, get close. Make sure you are able to hear the breath. Sometimes students will say they understand, but in fact they’re not practicing correctly. This is an easy breath to check because it’s so audible.