Origins, Benefits And When To Practice Ujjayi Pranayama

The quality of our breath reflects the quality of our mind, and vice versa. We use techniques like ujjayi breathing because by stabilizing the breath, we stabilize the mind. Explore the roots and benefits of ujjayi pranayama and how to practice it.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Ujjayi Breathing ocean breath pranayama
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

If you’ve taken a studio yoga class, you’ve likely heard of ujjayi pranayama. The warming and energizing ujjayi breath is a staple of powerful and flowing yoga styles, but why? Delve into the roots of pranayama in yoga, the benefits of ujjayi breathing, and when and how to practice it. Also, experience the effects of ujjayi breathing with our audio collection of free guided practices further below. 

Ujjayi Breathing: The Roots & Meaning Of Ujjayi Pranayama

What Does Ujjayi Mean?

Ujjayi is a Sanskrit word which combines the root ‘uj,’ meaning great or high, with the root ‘jay’ or ‘jii’ which means to conquer. Ujjayi is most often translated as ‘breath of the conqueror,’ or ‘victorious breath.’ Some refer to ujjayi as ocean breath, or Darth Vadar breath, because of its distinctive sound.

Like all pranayama, it’s best to learn ujjayi in person from a qualified instructor. The diaphragmatic breath of ujjayi is characterized by nostril breathing in which the length of the exhale matches the length of the breath in. Full inhales and full exhales flow smoothly, with no pause or breath retention between either. A gentle constriction of the glottis creates an audible ocean-like sound as the breath moves past the throat.

What Does Pranayama Mean?

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which breaks down into the root ‘prana,’ or life energy, and ‘ayama,’ or expansion (explore in more detail what prana is in another insightful article.) The second part of the word includes the root ‘yama,’ as in restraint. Thus, pranayama is alternately translated as expansion of our life force, or breath restraint. Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, and an integral part of the yogic path.

The victorious one who practices ujjayi pranayama is ultimately victorious over the cycle of life and death itself. According to the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when pranayama pierces the heart, the yogi becomes divine.

Dive right into the warming experience of ujjayi breathing with this free Insight Timer playlist:

ujjayi breathing pranayama meditations

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra And The End Of Breath

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra illuminates how pranayama carries us home to samadhi, full integration of the yogic practice. Yoga Sutra 2.49 states that once we have established ourselves as stable and comfortable in our asana, or posture practice, vicchedaḥ, the slowing of the breath is what follows (discover different ways of bringing deeper awareness to your asana practice.)

For Patanjali, pranayama is the natural result of perfect harmony in the body. For this reason, some teachers suggest that pranayama, and specifically ujjayi, should not be taught at all. Instead, this subtle breath will naturally arise when the student is ready. 

Teachers and scholars, however, debate the intended meaning of this Yoga Sutra. The word vicchedaḥ may be translated as softening, mastering, regulating or controlling the breath. Or, as interrupting, breaking, or ceasing to breathe. A curious (or fearful) yogi might wonder then, if the goal is to stop breathing. 

When contemplating breath cessation, it’s helpful to recognize the yogic path as one that moves from gross to subtle in body, breath, and mind. At first the student works on a gross level, as when working with the form body in asana practice. As asana begins to shift, stretch and soften the channels of the subtle body, prana moves more freely, which calms the mind. The attention of the yogi then naturally turns toward the subtle energy of the breath. When breath is controlled, so too is the mind. Because the energy of body, breath and mind are connected, stillness of the mind leads to stillness of prana. When prana is still, so too, is the breath.

Yoga sutra 2.5 reminds us that paying attention to the breath brings about changes that are experienced both externally, internally, and as an exchange between the two.

There is a fourth experience, however, that is far more subtle. This fourth experience of prana arises as our capacity for single pointed concentration becomes stronger. Yoga Sutra 2.51-2.53 describes this moment of stillness, the cessation of prana, as the moment when all our mental afflictions are removed. The breath continues, but the student becomes absorbed within prana itself. Thus the mind becomes fit for pure concentration.

The Effects Of Ujjayi Breathing On Your Mind

The quality of our breath reflects the quality of our mind, and vice versa. We use techniques like ujjayi breathing because by stabilizing the breath, we stabilize the mind. Likewise, we risk damage to the mind, the subtle body, and the inner winds when we breathe improperly. 

Ujjayi breathing should feel gentle and smooth, never agitating the throat. This subtle breath should never feel forced or rushed, nor should it cause stress. Relaxation is both the cause and the result of a proper ujjayi breath. Some teachers avoid teaching ujjayi to novice yogis, while others suggest learning ujjayi in baby steps. Before attempting ujjayi breath, you should first be comfortable breathing steadily and evenly in and out through the nose. Then, add constriction of the throat to the exhale before trying it on the inhale too.

A 2013 study on the cardiovascular effects of ujjayi breathing found that slow and steady nostril breathing

  • increases cardiac-vagal baroreflex sensitivity,
  • improves oxygen saturation, lowers blood pressure, and
  • reduces anxiety in novice yogis.

When these novice yogis attempted ujjayi breathing, however, these positive effects diminished. Because ujjayi breath takes great effort for beginners, it increases stress. Ujjayi breath should only be practiced if and when it feels more relaxing than slow nostril breathing without throat constriction.

Explore more: There are hundreds of free guided pranayama techniques offered on Insight Timer.

Physical And Mental Benefits Of Ujjayi Breath

When practiced properly, both nostril breathing and ujjayi have great benefits. Both activate the vagus nerve which turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, our heart rate slows and steadies, our mood improves, and our immune response is boosted. A 2012 study out of India confirms that by stimulating the vagus nerve, ujjayi breathing suppresses sympathetic nervous system activity, ujjayi turns off our physical response to stress.

Ujjayi is considered a cleansing breath, as is all nostril breathing. As the air passes through the nose, it is humidified and tiny particles are removed. Ujjayi’s bronchial vibration is said to have a further cleansing effect, as it causes the cilia in the lungs to oscillate, grabbing even smaller particles as the air comes in.

The full, reflexive breath of ujjayi maintains steady pressure in the main branches that carry air from the trachea to the lungs, the bronchi. This allows for a fuller emptying of the lungs on the exhale breath, creating space for air that’s fresh and new. 

Physical benefits aside, ujjayi breathing offers us the benefit of mindfulness. The breath’s ocean-like sound should be just loud enough for you to hear. This audible quality helps us hold attention on the breath. When we’re mindful of breath, we’re more likely to breathe fully, patiently and slowly, in an even and steady manner. Because breath and prana are connected, mindful breathing brings greater ease to both body and mind.

Discover Insight Timer’s large free library of guided breathing meditation practices that can teach you how to use your breath as a tool to focus your awareness on the present.

When To Practice Ujjayi Breathing

Ujjayi breathing has been popularized in the west as the preferred pranayama for asana, especially in the Ashtanga, Jivamukti, and Vinyasa traditions. As ubiquitous as closing a class with namaste, most instructors begin by asking you to activate ujjayi pranayama. Some teachers recommend ujjayi be perfected in a seated position before it’s applied to asana practice, while others argue ujjayi shouldn’t be practiced during asana at all, as it will arise naturally when asana is no longer needed.

Read more: Learn what it really means to say namaste and how the word found its way into yoga classes around the world.

The eight limbs of yoga, asana and pranayama included, are useful in guiding us towards samadhi, and we will one day let go of them just as we let go of all things. In the meantime, as modern day yogis, we must navigate our practice in a way that feels good and makes sense. The goal is to take full and even breaths in our asana practice. If ujjayi pranayama keeps us mindful of our breathing, steady, and focused, then we should practice it. The yogic path does not unfold in a linear way. We can practice all limbs simultaneously.

Meditation. Free.
Always.