Breath Awareness Part 5: Victorious Breath
Welcome back to this week’s blog, and the last in this series about Breath Awareness.
Before we start, a quick recap. In Part 1, we looked at the science of breathing. In Part 2, we focused on Belly Breathing. Part 3 honed in on Full Yogic Breathing, or Dirga Pranayama, and Part 4 looked at Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Nadi Shodhana.
This week, we are going to look at another wonderful technique called Victorious Breath, or sometimes referred to as Ocean Breath. In Sanskrit, this is called Ujjayi Pranayama with Ujjayi translating to “Victorious” in English.
We will cover, as usual, the following:
- What is Ujjayi Pranayama?
- What are the benefits of Ujjayi Pranayama?
- How do I do Ujjayi Pranayama?
Let’s get right into it.
What is Ujjayi Pranayama?
If you’ve ever been to a class in a studio (in person or online) before, you may have actually heard other students practicing this type of breathing as they move through each asana. If you have been placed next to someone and wondered why they’re breathing so loudly, it is likely that they are applying Ujjayi breathing.
Ujjayi breathing is, unlike Nadi Shodhana, done through both nostrils, much like regular closed-lip breathing. The difference is, however, that we apply a slight restriction to the throat that creates a kind of gentle hissing sound. In essence, we are gently restricting (emphasis on the gently) the flow of air in and out of the throat. This encourages more controlled, slower, deeper inhales and exhales than would occur without the gentle restriction, and therefore works to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us into our Window of Tolerance (Siegel, 1999; Lutz, 2021). More on that here.
Some systems of asana, for example, Ashtanga Yoga (as prescribed by Sri K Patthabi Jois), encourage the practice of Ujjayi Pranayama throughout your asana practice. So, instead of simply breathing in and out through the nose, you apply this slight restriction to create this gentle hissing sound as you move around on your mat. This might be what you are hearing when you’re in a yoga class full of what may seem like heavy breathers. It should be noted, though, that Jois’ teacher, Krishnamacharya, devised classes aimed specifically at men, in particular teenage boys. Krishnamacharya noted that these young men tended to be in sympathetic nervous system-driven states (like most teenagers), and therefore, to combat this, encouraged them to apply Ujjayi breathing as they practiced to stimulate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing them into a calmer, more grounded state. Patthabi Jois simply continued this pattern in his Ashtanga method, which is why in some classes the teacher will direct students to employ Ujjayi breathing throughout the class. In most other systems, Ujjayi Pranayama is practiced either before or after asana class (usually the latter, as asana is used to open up the channels ready for Pranayama practices).
What are the benefits of Ujjayi?
As with the other techniques that we have covered in this series, Ujjayi comes with a plethora of benefits, some of which are listed below:
- First up, Ujjayi is a great practice as it helps us to become more aware of the breath. The gentle restriction will attune us to the smoothness (or, as often I found as a beginner practitioner, the lack thereof) of the inhales and exhales, the location of the breath as you inhale and exhale, and the length (and equality of length) or each breath in and out.
- Next, this is a type of diaphragmatic breathing, much like Belly Breathing, and therefore has the same benefit of improving lung strength and capacity, meaning we can bring in more fresh, revitalizing oxygen, and remove more waste materials on the exhale.
- Adding to that, the body becomes energized, and the nerves send signals to the brain that the body feels good, bringing the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system into balance and leading to feelings of calmness and gorundedness (Tummee, 2022).
As with all techniques, though, there are contraindications, a full list you can find here. As always, I strongly recommend checking with your trusted medical professional before beginning any new technique, this one included. Some contraindications include (but are not limited to):
- Pregnancy, due to strains being placed on the abdominal area.
- Trauma – particularly trauma associated with the throat or neck area as the restriction applied could be triggering.
- If you have heart-related issues, suffer from migraines, or have blood pressure issues, then definitely check in with your medical professional before attempting this practice.
- More contraindications can be found here.
How do I do Ujjayi Pranayama?
OK, so assuming you have the go ahead from a trusted medical professional, then let’s get into the step-by-step.
- Come to a comfortable seated position on the floor or on a chair. If you are on the floor, check that your knees are below the line of your hip bones. If not, elevate your hips by sitting up on a blanket or cushion, and support your knees by placing a cushion or rolled-up blanket (or yoga blocks if you have them) underneath your knees.
- To establish the restriction in the breath, first breath out through an open mouth like you are trying to fog up a window, or want to whisper some juicy gossip to a friend. Notice the very slight restriction this places on the throat muscles. Try a few times just to get used to the sound.
- Next, take a deep inhale through the nose, and exhale slowly with an open mouth as before. This time, halfway through, close the lips but endeavour to keep that same sense of fogging up a window or whispering to a friend. You will notice that your exhale becomes audible, a gentle hiss.
- Keeping your lips closed and the gentle restriction applied, try to inhale slowly. If you find your breath is choppy and catching, then too much restriction is being applied. That’s OK, it takes a bit of getting used to. Simply return to normal breathing for a bit, then when you are ready, try again.
- Once you have the hang of it, breathe in and out like this for a couple of minutes (no more than five for starters). Pay attention to the smoothness of the breath, where you feel the breath going in your body, and how you automatically start to try to equalize the inhale and exhale in length.
- Then, release the restriction and return to normal breathing. Observe how you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally. If nothing much has changed, that is OK – totally normal in fact. It takes practice.
- If at all you feel dizzy or light-headed during this practice, release the restriction immediately, return to normal breathing, and take a seat on the floor, or Child’s Pose (Balasana) if that is available for you, until you feel better. Rest, and try again tomorrow. There is no rush.
If you’d like to follow along with a video of this, try RosalieYoga’s video below. Short, sweet, and simple.
And that is it for our Breath Awareness Series. If you’d like a video/audio/transcript of a full breathing practice that incorporated all we have learned in this series, then let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or pop over to my Instagram and drop me a message, and I will put together something wonderful for you. In the meantime, if you’re keen to get your home space set up for a safe and sustainable yoga practice, drop your info in the fields below and then check your inbox for a great little freebie guide that shows you how to do exactly that.
Next, we wil be looking at how to stay safe in our asana practice, focusing in on common problem areas such as the knees, the wrists, the shoulders, and the back.
Until then, much love,
Lutz., J. (2020). Trauma Healing in the Yoga Zone: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals, Yoga Therapists, and Teachers. Handspring Pub Ltd.
Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press.
Tummee. (2022). Ujjayi Pranayama. https://www.tummee.com/yoga-poses/ujjayi-pranayama#benefits