Breathing practices in the yoga tradition have the purpose of moving or manipulating the flow of prāna (life force) in the respiratory system and throughout the subtle body. Prāna flows through the channels of the subtle body (called meridians or nādis), to bring us into being and keep us alive! The more prāna you have, the more vibrant, energized, stable, confident, happy, light, healthy and joyful you are. If you are depleted in prāna (due to poor diet, imbalanced lifestyle, lack of activity or excessive activity, stress, illness, and so on) – you will feel low, depressed, slow, tired, exhausted, unhappy, fearful, over-sensitive, depleted, cloudy, and unmotivated. Yuck!
Ujjayi Heals & Transforms for Two Main Reasons
- The muscular narrowing of the throat passageway required to create the ujjayi sound causes the oxygen (which carries prāna) to be more powerfully (but slowly) jet-streamed into the respiratory system, ultimately penetrating the physical and subtle systems more deeply, and increasing prāna and cellular oxygenation.
- The oceanic sound that is created by the muscular narrowing of the throat passageway has an extremely calming effect on the mind, and balances the nervous system. The effect on the nervous system has an overall healing effect on the immune system in particular as well as many aspects of mental and physical well-being.
The combination of these two inter-linked aspects of ujjayi prānāyāma brings many benefits (see below), but for yogis who are living a “regular” life (work, family, etc), one amazing benefit of a regular, daily practice is that the combined calming of the mind and the increase of prāna allows you to take on the tasks of life, without feeling any sense of overwhelm or dread, but rather a sense of honor, purpose and peacefulness.
Benefits of Ujjayi Prānāyāma
“[Ujjayi] destroys defects of the energy channels, dropsy and disorders of the bodily tissues. It can be practiced in all conditions of life, while standing, sitting or walking.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Okay… here is a list to get you started & motivated!
Warms the throat, neck and whole body
Tones the lungs
Keeps life force circulating in the body
Improves your digestion
Can resolve insomnia, anxiety, and both physical and mental tension;
Increases relaxation, concentration and quiet mind.
Increases energy, vitality and stamina.
Increases oxygenation of cells.
Increases mental clarity and inward-turned awareness.
Increases prāna (life force) and with prāna, your joy, confidence, motivation, and your sense of your life’s purpose
Speeds any and all healing processes
Is more restful to the body and mind than a nap!
Balances the nervous system (parasympathetic and sympathetic)
Stabilizes and strengthens the integrity of the immune system.
How to Practice Ujjayi Prānāyāma
“Having closed the opening of the nādi [larynx], the air should be drawn in such a way that it goes touching from the throat to the chest, making a noise whilst passing”. – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Lie in shavāsana or sit in a comfortable seated position (cross-legged or in a chair). Your spine should be easefuly aligned and comfortable. If you are lying down in shavāsana, you may want to elevate your legs and consider propping your head with a firm folded blanket or pad, so that your forehead and chin are level (this protects your neck and will make creating the sound easier).
Simply become aware of your breathing as it is, breathing through your nostrils, with your mouth closed, but relaxed.
Narrow the inside of your throat at the base of your throat. Do this gently. Don’t use neck muscles, just inner throat muscles. This is similar to the gentle narrowing you would do if you were to whisper to someone or fog up a window with your breath – except you do it with your mouth closed. If you need, you can start with your mouth open, and then close your mouth, continuing the sound. Your breathing itself continues naturally and easily, through your nose. This gentle narrowing exaggerates the sound of your breathing, and it may sound like ocean waves, in and out.
If you are having trouble creating this sound, or finding your inner throat muscles, try again, breathing through an open mouth, creating the sound you would create to fog a window, or whisper softly. It may be easier to do this on your exhalation, but do it on both your exhale and your inhale. Now that you’ve got the sound, close your mouth but continue creating the sound.
Do not push or force your breath. Let your breathing be natural and easeful. Now… become more deeply aware of this quiet inner sound. It should be the same sound on your inhalation and your exhalation. Smooth, steady, like ocean waves moving in, and back out again.
Allow the sound to be quiet… just loud enough that you can hear it with your inner ear, which is right next to your throat. It should not be super loud or forced. It’s your own internal sound, just for you.
The Restorative Approach to Ujjayi
“Too much force, omitting proper instruction, may cause excess pressure and thus problems for the head, ears, eyes, etc.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
1) Easeful & Gentle – Use just enough muscular narrowing of the throat to create the sound – excessive use of those muscles will cause tension in your neck and all the way down the length of your spine. This tension will actually block the ability of your body to uptake the oxygen and the prāna during the practice, and excessive efforting will certainly limit or prevent the quieting effect on the mind that is the purpose of yoga.
2) Quiet & Peaceful – Keeping the sound intenral – not excessively loud – will help the mind draw inward to the sound. This is inline with the yogic practice of pratyahara (inward turning of the mind and senses).
Contraindications for Ujjayi Prānāyāma
1) Do NOT do ujjayi prānayāma during or after release spinal poses, as this can lead to spinal spasms or other forms of acute pain (see effects above for more on this) – ujjayi is totally fine and beneficial during poses in other styles of yoga practice
2) For a person with neck pain, serious neck tension or neck injury, this practice may be ineffective, counter-productive or even harmful, as they have a tendency to tight their neck, choose an alternative practice, including simple natural, gentle breathing with awareness
3) A person taking immunosuppressant pharmaceuticals (as in the case of having had an organ transplant), should NOT practice ujjayi prānāyama, as it can disrupt the life-saving effect of the immunosuppressant.