How To: Ujjayi Pranayama

This is part of Nourish’s Yoga Practise Guide Library. We were inspired to make these guides to support your own yoga practise and as a resource for teachers who want to make their classes more accessible. We were also pretty tired of all the generic teaching instructions and guides floating around the internet that aren’t inclusive, accessible or adaptable in any way. 

If you would like more guidance on making this practice accessible, we have missed something, or you have any questions drop us a comment –– we love hearing from you and really do mean it when we say yoga is for everybody!

What is Ujjayi Pranayama?

Ujjayi pranayama is a breathing practice that involves lightly constricting the throat to produce a lengthened breath that has a characteristic rushing or oceanic sound. Although the sound is produced in the throat, Ujjayi is practised by breathing in and out through the nose only, keeping the mouth closed. 

Ujjayi pranayama is translated from Sanskrit as Victorious Breath (from ‘jaya‘ meaning ‘victory’ or ‘being victorious’ and the prefix ‘ud‘ meaning over or above). It’s also referred to as Ocean Breath, echoing how the inhale and exhale sound like waves breaking and retreating on a shoreline.   

Ujjayi is considered to be both energising and grounding — which makes it a great breath to use whilst practising asana! Ujjayi is unique, as unlike nearly all other pranayama practices, which are standalone exercises in and of themselves, Ujjayi is most frequently practised in tandem with asana. Unfortunately, however, its association with asana has meant it is often looked over as a standalone practice, which is a lovely way to explore and get to know Ujjayi — which I cover below! 

At its best, in asana practice, a rhythmic, lengthened, sounded breath becomes a metronome to help settle the mind and sync the flow of breath with the body’s movements. The grounding qualities of Ujjayi can support us in staying present, connected to, and easeful in our asana practice. The energising qualities give us the oomph to support our physical practice. In turn, by melding the breath and movement, the mind can also take up residence in our practice as an open, present, non-judgmental, receptive force. However, we can find these qualities without Ujjayi — exploring Ujjayi is a great gateway into helping you refine how you breathe in asana practice and ensuring it is a tool to keep you centred, present, and connected to your practice. 

Check out our other Pranayama Guides: 

The Anatomy Behind Ujjayi

The sounded element of Ujjayi tends to excite or flummox people — but in actuality, the noise is merely a byproduct of the glottal constriction occurring in the throat.

In the Ujjayi steps below, I include an exercise that engages the glottis as much as required. This is all you need to get started with Ujjayi successfully. But if you are interested in the relevant anatomy for yoga, I have included a more detailed breakdown:

In many ways, Ujjayi is a three-part breath — a lengthened, deep, mindful breath — with a few twists and turns. The sounded element of Ujjayi is made by gently adducting (bringing together) the vocal cords to narrow the glottis, the space between the vocal cords. The narrowed glottis creates a tube through which the breath travels. This restricted passageway also, naturally, causes the breath to lengthen. The rushing ‘ocean sound’ is produced by air vibrating across the adducted vocal cords. 

The vocal cords have another essential job — they are the sphincter (a contracting and releasing tube of muscle) that prevents food and liquid from travelling into the lungs. By virtue, when the vocal cords are adducted fully, the glottis is closed off, and air cannot travel in or out of the lungs. 

 

When practising Ujjayi, people can overestimate how much they need to adduct the vocal cords causing their breath to become uncomfortable — the aim is to restrict the glottis NOT restrict the breath. The glottal restriction is a very subtle, an almost imperceptible action and sensation. The movement of the vocal cords is equivalent to the position they take when we whisper, which is less movement than when we speak. Give whispering, speaking, and shouting the same phrases a go and see if you can note the different sensations in the throat. 

For most people, breathing and producing verbal sounds is an autonomic process — something we do without thinking about. Therefore, the gentle constriction of the glottis is an action that is widely accessible for most people. After all, many of us were giving our vocal cords a thorough, screaming and crying induced workout the moment we were born. 

Ujjayi Suggestions and Variations

Seated Ujjayi Practice

Ujjayi makes a lovely pranayama practice in and of itself, and it is an excellent variation to Three-Part pranayama. Getting to know Ujjayi as a seated practice also allows you to uncover both the dynamics and effects of the practice, without having to worry about integrating it with asana. 

  1. Find a comfortable seat either in a chair, on the floor, or kneeling. Allow your spine to lengthen and the shoulders to soften. Rest your hands in a comfortable position on your lap.
  2. Lengthen the back of your neck by very slightly tucking the chin — note, this isn’t dropping the chin down into the chest, but involves drawing the chin slightly down and in. 
  3. The next few steps are an accessible way to explore the gentle constriction of the glottis needed for Ujjayi. This can be done with either the mouth open (step 4) or closed (step 5). In our covid times, if you are exploring Ujjayi in a studio, in-person class setting, or with other people around, jump to step 5 and only explore Ujjayi with a closed mouth.   
  4. Take a few easy breaths, becoming aware of each inhale and exhale. On your next exhale, open your mouth a few cms to exhale as if lightly fogging up a window an inch in front of your face — because the window is so close, you only need to exhale very gently. Close your mouth and inhale naturally. Repeat two more times. Notice the very soft rushing sound on the exhale. Also, become aware that because the mouth is open, the jaw is soft and unclenched, and the tongue is resting on the floor of the mouth. 
  5. Next, keeping the mouth closed and the jaw soft, exhale through your nose but imagine you are fogging up a window placed an inch in front of your face. Inhale normally. Take three to five breaths here, resting your awareness at your throat. See if you can tune into the sensations in your throat; this is the gentle constriction and release of your glottis on your exhale and inhale, respectively. The sensation is very subtle and largely effortless.    
  6. Next, keeping the jaw soft, see if you can hold that glottal engagement on the inhale as well as the exhale. Take three to five breaths here. Notice how the sound on the inhale is softer than that on the exhale.  
    1. If you struggle with the sounded Ujjayi inhale, you can try imagining you are gently gasping or drawing air into the mouth with it open (like a reverse puff of breath). If you are in a covid safe environment, you can practice this with the mouth open, but be mindful that drawing the breath in too sharply can be uncomfortable on the throat.
  7. Take a few regular breaths, now engage your Ujjayi breath (feel free to work through the steps again until you can readily engage it). Practice your Ujjayi breath for as long as is comfortable. As you explore your Ujjayi breath further, become aware of its gentle rhythm and notice the qualities of the breath: does it feel long or short, expansive or restrictive? How does it feel for you? Is it grounding or uncomfortable in any way? Exploring the breath in this way will help you determine if Ujjayi is the right pranayama practice for you.
Working with Ujjayi in Asana

Once you have got familiar with the dynamics of Ujjayi as a seated practice, you can start to integrate it with asana. Ensuring you have a foundation with Ujjayi means you won’t need to consciously focus on the dynamics in the throat for Ujjayi when moving. Instead, you can focus on how Ujjayi and asana work together.  

Exploring Ujjayi in Flowing Asana:

Flowing asana are sequences when you move the body in line with the flow of breath, such as during Cat-cow, Sun Salutations, Rolling Downward Dogs, or Vinyasa Flow sequences where you move through one pose per breath.  

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Cat-Cow is the perfect flow for getting familiar with how Ujjayi and asana support each other. Take a few rounds of Ujjayi in a tabletop position, then keep your Ujjayi engaged as you start your Cat-Cow spinal flow. The aim is for the end of the inhale to coincide with your full expression of Cow pose, and vice versa for Cat pose on the exhale. 
  • Explore Ujjayi in your favourite Sun Salutation variation — this can be a Chair Yoga variation too. Each breath should match and support your movements. Some people may move through poses on each inhale and exhale, and other people may prefer to take one or more full rounds of breath in all or certain poses. No matter how long you spend in each pose, the intention is for the start and end of each pose to fluidly meld with the start or end of an inhalation or exhalation. 
  • The more competent you grow with Ujjayi, the more you can explore it in different asana sequences. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed — get familiar with Ujjayi in a few sequences you know well before engaging it in other flows. In time, if Ujjayi is supportive for you, working with Ujjayi will become habitual and occur naturally in asana.  
  • If Ujjayi makes you feel out of breath in flowing asana, then relax it and work with your preferred breath. 
  • Notice when your breath is getting in the way of your asana. Just as an embodied approach to asana encourages us to explore asana in a way that works best for each individual, we can apply these principles to Ujjayi. When does it feel uncomfortable or forced? 
  • Notice if your flowing sequences feel better, different, more connected, mindful, uncomfortable, distracted, or worse when using Ujjayi. This practice won’t be for everyone. Above all, Ujjayi should positively support your experience of flowing asana sequences — if it doesn’t, explore alternative ways of breathing in asana. 
Exploring Ujjayi in Static Asana 

Introducing Ujjayi in poses that are held for a number of breaths can help to forge a deeper internal connection to the pose. 

Tips for working with Ujjayi in static asana:

  • Introducing Ujjayi into poses you are already familiar with is a great place to start, so you can focus on establishing how the breath connects you deeper into the pose as opposed to having to split your attention between getting to know the pose and the breath.
  • Certain poses will seem to fit with Ujjayi better. For example, Trikonasana (Triangle pose), where the torso is open and lengthening, accommodates Ujjayi well. Conversely, Utthita Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle pose) and other twisting poses where the breath is restricted to a degree, such as Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle pose), tend to be more challenging. 
  • As you grow familiar with Ujjayi, notice which poses you habitually use Ujjayi for and which ones you don’t. Although you can try introducing Ujjayi into them, you may find that Ujjayi doesn’t suit them.   
  •  Notice whether poses that require strong core engagement, such as Plank pose or standing balancing poses, are helped or hindered by Ujjayi. Some people may find that it encourages core engagement, and for others trying to integrate Ujjayi with challenging poses may be a distraction. 
  • It is normal for the qualities and intensity of Ujjayi to change slightly depending on how challenging a pose is. Usually we deepen our breath when we are physically challenged, which may cause your Ujjayi to become louder or deeper. However, notice if it becomes restricted or raspy as this is a sign you are forcing the breath.

When Do I Practice Ujjayi?

Ujjayi is a flexible practice you can explore in lots of different ways and settings — mornings, evenings, or whenever works for you; as a standalone practice to help you feel more centred; as a precursor to a meditation practice; and of course, with asana.

Ujjayi is most often used in dynamic styles of yoga, such as Vinyasa Flow and Power Yoga. However, if you find it particularly soothing, there is nothing to stop you from exploring it in gentle styles, such as Yin

Precisely because Ujjayi can be practised in so many different ways, make sure to tune-in and notice when Ujjayi is supportive for you and when it doesn’t work. As always, not every practice is for everybody — if Ujjayi doesn’t work for you, don’t keep forcing it, there are plenty of other pranayama practices and ways to support your asana practice with breath. 

When Shouldn’t I Practice or Teach it? 

If Ujjayi makes you feel unwell or uncomfortable at any time, stop practising it. It is not uncommon for consciously working with the breath to trigger anxiety. For some students, Ujjayi might feel uncomfortable or scratchy in the throat, or even cause lightheadedness or headaches — if this is the case, stop practsing it. 

If you or your students have damaged vocal cords or any conditions that affects the vocal cords, throat, or verbal expression either disregard Ujjayi completely (Three-Part pranayama is a great alternative) or, if your student is curious about it, in a one-to-one setting, workshop different ways Ujjayi could be explored. 

Notice when Ujjayi becomes too much of a habit. Over time, you may default into Ujjayi in all your asana — although there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with this, the effect can cause you to be less mindful and connected to your practices, as opposed to being more aware. If you feel this is the case for you, consciously practice without Ujjayi, using a natural soft breath instead.

How Do I Adapt Ujjayi To Make it Accessible? What Are Some Common Difficulties?

  • Take your time to get to know Ujjayi independently of asana, and don’t rush when working with it in asana. This will help you figure out if or when Ujjayi is a suitable practice for you.
  • When starting out with Ujjayi, there can be a tendency to force the breath deeply into the belly and/or actively try and produce the sound. Emphasise the dynamics of the glottal restriction — and note that it is this action in the throat that naturally lengthens the breath and makes it sounded. 
  • The inhale and exhales should, in time, seamlessly flow into one another. If there is a gap between your inhale and exhale, this may be a sign of forcing the breath. 
  • Some people will instinctively connect to the practice, and Ujjayi will feel comfortable and natural. However, although the body is very adept at glottal constriction, making unconscious processes conscious can feel disorientating and alien. Some people may struggle and over constrict or force the glottis (leading to wheezing, discomfort, or difficulty breathing), or they may bypass the throat altogether, believing the sound is produced by a loud, forced, nasal breath. 
  • When integrating Ujjayi with flowing asana there can be tension between how long your breath is and how long you need to move through postures. The intention is to find a harmonious balance, where the breath and movement naturally support each other. Sometimes this takes practice, but other times Ujjayi may not be the right breathing style to support your asana practice. Take your time exploring Ujjayi with asana, keeping an open, non-judgmental mindset. 
  • Keep the jaw and tongue soft; in time it is not uncommon for tension to creep in. 
  • Be mindful of pushing yourself, your students, or teachers pushing you into Ujjayi as the ‘aim’ or ‘right way’ to breathe in dynamic styles of yoga. Ujjayi breath is not essential for dynamic practices, nor is it the eventual goal to use Ujjayi in dynamic practices all of the time. Ujjayi only makes sense if it supports your asana, giving you more energy and greater connection to your physical yoga practice.  
  • There is no ‘right volume’ for Ujjayi — just as we can whisper loudly or softly, Ujjayis can have different volumes. In general, your most relaxed whisper volume is the easiest, least effortful Ujjayi volume. 
  • There is a misguided idea that the qualities and intensity of your Ujjayi breath is supposed to stay the same across the entire practice. It is natural for your breath to fluctuate throughout your practice. In general, the aim is to keep the breath as even as possible — but it is normal to become a little breathless or the breath to speed up when your heart rate rises. 

How Do I Teach Ujjayi To A Mixed Ability Class?

    • Teach an Ujjayi focused class. An in-depth class focusing on Ujjayi can be a game-changer for students no matter their familiarity with the practice. For students who have never encountered it (but may be aware of the noisy breathing of their classmates), it gives them a solid foundation. For students who have some familiarity, it can iron out any kinks. For students who are adept at Ujjayi, it encourages them to connect with it as the focus of their practice instead of as a habitual accompaniment to asana. For students who don’t connect to the practice, it teaches them to find alternative ways to engage with their breath to support their asana. 
    • Acknowledge Ujjayi is a flexible practice and isn’t for everyone. Just as asana has variations that focus on a fundamental quality or action in the body, the intention of Ujjayi is to establish a way of connecting mindfully to the breath in asana. This may simply be by becoming aware of the breath in poses or comfortably deepening it.  
    • Focus on the throat. The action of gently constricting the glottis is all that is required for Ujjayi breath. Emphasise getting familiar with the sensations and feelings here, and then encourage your students to notice that the lengthening of their breath and the sound is a byproduct. This will help prevent students from actively forcing their breath and aiming for the sound. 
    • Let your students find THEIR Ujjayi in asana. Instructing Sun Salutations along the lines of one inhale or exhale per movement is very restrictive. The length of students breaths will vary, and they will likely need to take a different number of breaths in poses. Give space and time for students to explore Sun Salutations and other asana with Ujjayi in a way that supports them. 
  • Ask how it feels. The intention of Ujjayi breath is not Ujjayi breath but is to foster a greater connection to, and awareness of, the breath. Ujjayi, at its best, is grounding and energising. Ask your students to tune into their experience of it, and help guide them in whether it is the best breath practice for them, particularly in asana. 
  • It takes practice. Implementing Ujjayi across a range of asana is a long process; explain this to your students. Don’t expect it to feel natural or great all of the time in its early days.    
  • You can offer Ujjayi without teaching it. Saying ‘if Ujjayi or another breathing practice is something you work with in asana, feel free to use it’ is something you can say every practice.   

Don’t make every class an Ujjayi class. If you offer Ujjayi in your classes, it can be tempting to spend a minute in Tadasana covering the basics of Ujjayi before Sun Salutations. However, for students who have never practised Ujjayi before, this can present a range of problems and cause them to dive into the practice without fully understanding it. As teachers, we need to pick our focuses for a class; otherwise, we would instruct everything in minutia and only cover a few poses or elements, or cover nothing in-depth ever. 

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