The first time I heard it, I thought it was a joke. When I heard it again, I thought the teacher was trying to be poetic. As he walked sloooooowly around the heated yoga studio telling us to “engage” this and start “looking inward” that, I had absolutely no idea what he meant. But the tooooone of his voice was so sloooow and sooooothing that I felt my muscles relaaaaxing into his words as my child’s pose was awaaaakening…. And then he said it:
“Activate your Ujayeeee something”. Followed by: “the victorious breath will guide you” something or other. Followed by him adding on MORE descriptors, this time referencing a breath of fire. Fire????
I remember perking sharply up from my active child’s pose and looking around the class trying to see if anyone else found his metaphors as cryptic (or stressful) as I did. Apparently they didn’t.
I placed my forehead back on the floor in shame and waited for some explanation of this victorious breath business, yet it never came.
And then I spent the remainder of that class really, really, reeeaaaallly confused and looking forward to lighting a cigarette with fire that I understood, as soon as I got out of there.
That was almost ten years ago. Yoga was still quite new to me, and I was doing my best to stumble through classes while trying to keep up with the teacher’s prompts, most of which I didn’t understand. Back then, we didn’t run to Google translate for everything we didn’t “get” in life (or at least I didn’t), so I let the ujjayi thing slide. I simply assumed that the “victorious” descriptor was a fancy name for deep, loooooooong breaths reserved for “victorious” yogis more enlightened than I clearly was, and left it at that.
It took me a few years, and lots of different instructors to first piece together and then (gradually) to apply the technique, before correctly incorporating the “victory breath” in my practice. Even then, if I must be candid, I didn’t really feel “victorious”. What was still missing was UNDERSTANDING the principles behind all the poetic terms. All I knew was that breathing deeply made me more focused during class.
I presumed that I was lame for not knowing all of the above, and I was too shy or intimidated to ask my yoga teachers to elaborate on the ujjayii business.
Besides, I had been in their classes for years “faking” it, so to ask about it this late in the game was as much a faux-pas as asking someone their name after having met them repeatedly over time. Or so I thought. I felt like an impostor.
So, for those of you out there who are “faking their ujjayis” like I did, or are doing it right without being too sure WHY you’re doing it or what the hell it even means, I’d like to confess: You are NOT alone. So let’s break it down with some FAQ’s.
WHAT IS UJJAYI?
In yoga, “pranayama” is the “science” of breath. There are numerous pranayama techniques that have evolved with the physical practice of yoga over thousands of years, each of which offer various physiological and mental benefits to practitioners.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s stick to the topic of this post: Uyjaii. Uyjaii breath is one of these styles of breathing, which translated in to English means “to gain mastery” or to “become victorious”. You might hear various English names for it in class such as “victorious breath”, “breath of fire” (this is not accurate – the breath of fire is a completely different technique, even though many western teachers apply the fire descriptor to Uyjaii), or “ocean breath”.
This might be as confusing for you as it was for me, since how can something that’s described as “victorious” be simultaneously be defined by “ocean”? Do you see the conundrum? And even if we work past this point of contention, what about the next point: what does breath have to do with victory anyways?
MEANING AND ORIGINS OF UJJAYI:
Ujjayi is a Sanskrit term which means “loud breathing”, or if you want a more detailed description, “that which clears the throat and masters the chest area”. I’m an anatomy girl, and want to know how whatever I’m doing (or saying) translates into a physiological explanation.
The burning question regarding the “victorious breath” for me was: WHY? The anatomical explanation is this: Ujjayi breathing is a type of pranayama breathing which develops awareness while the “glottis” is partially closed.
Okay, good. Now we’re getting somewhere. My next question (naturally) is this:
WHAT THE FRIGG IS THE “GLOTTIS”?
The glottis refers to the vocal folds, and the opening between them. Or, to put it more simply, the opening between the vocal cords in your throat. Here’s what it looks like:
WHAT DOES THE GLOTTIS HAVE TO DO WITH BREATHING, LET ALONE MY YOGA PRACTICE?
Ujjayi breathing (activating the glottis) has been used in Ashtanga Yoga for thousands of years. It generates heat and by doing so, releases built-up toxins from both the body and mind.
HOW DO I “DO” UJJAYI BREATHING?
The Ujjayi Breath consists of inhaling and exhaling through the nose. There’s a noise that always accompanies it, which is often compared to the ocean, fogging a window, or Darth Vader, especially during the exhalation part. No idea what this means? No problem. I’ve never seen Star Wars, OR spent much time fogging windows, and while I’m an ocean fiend, I’m still scratching my head over how my breath and the ocean become one. Don’t despair. Here’s how to do it:
1. Sit or stand with your back straight.
2. Start inhaling and exhaling slowly through the nose, until you attain a steady rhythm.
3. Keeping your mouth closed, gently constrict the glottis muscles in the back of your throat (the muscles you use when you whisper) and continue breathing. You should hear an ocean-like sound.
4. If you’re still not sure if you’re doing it right, try this method: Inhale, and on an exhale, open your mouth and make the same “hhhha” sound you would make if you WERE actually fogging a window. Halfway through the “hhha” exhale, close your mouth and complete your exhale. There, now you sound like the ocean and are correctly breathing victoriously!
HOW WILL UJJAYI BREATHING BENEFIT MY YOGA PRACTICE?
First off, breathing through the nose invigorates the nostrils. Duh. For most people, the nostrils connect to emotions; you only have to notice how when someone is really mad, sad or frustrated, their nostrils seem to flare (as their jaw simultaneously clenches). Ujjayi simply exploits this connection, but in a positive way. By purposely slowing down the breath, we calm our circulation, heart rate, and emotional response. We become more relaxed, aware, and centered in the moment.
In addition to merely slowing down our breathing, however, ujjayii offers extra benefits through our constriction of the glottis. This constriction permits less air to get through (both on inhalations and exhalations), which in turn force our breath to last longer.
In turn, this exaggeratedly slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which sends relaxation signals to our body through an abundance of physiological processes that are way to complex for this blog.
All you need to know is that this is backed up by science, anatomy and biology, and if you want to know more, please read up on the parasympathetic nervous system. If you want the Coles Notes, here they are: uyjaii breathing makes you calm though physiological processes, which tell your brain it’s time to tune out, relax and enjoy. No substances required.
WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF UJJAYII?
1. When our vocal cords restrict the flow of air, our breathing muscles also become firmer, which explains why we feel stronger.
2. The whispering sound of ujjayii draws our attention to the breath, which then becomes the heart of our practice.
3. With the glottis partially closed, your inhales last longer, which permits the air to seep deeper into the lower lungs than regular breathing permits, which is where our richest blood supply is. So basically, you’re nourishing your lung tissues.
4. Your abdominal organs get massaged, as the diaphragm extends downward in response to the chest expanding and the pelvic floor muscles relaxing. On a deep inhalation, your organs sink deeper into the pelvis, and this is reversed on exhalations, resulting in a gentle massage of your internal organs.
5. It opens up our chest, which triggers a mind-body connection that translates into an emotional response of confidence, power and invigoration of our practice.
So to sum up, Ujjayi breathing not only focuses our attention on our breathing and being in the moment during our practice, but it has numerous physical benefits as well. Something that’s able to simultaneously relax AND invigorate us shouldn’t be overlooked. Because it’s pretty darn victorious, if you ask me…