Ujjayi Pranayama – the “real” ujjayi pranayama

Ujjayi Pranayama

This is the “real” ujjayi pranayama. It is a very calming and healing pranayama.

There are a lot of opinions about what ujjayi is, our practice of ashtanga has popularized the term ujjayi, and while many experts say the breathing we do in our asana practice is not really ujjayi, it is the start of learning the ujjayi pranayama. When I hear conflicting data I like to go to the text books and research, this time I did not have to go too much further than the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP).

Chapter 2 Verses 51-53 states:

Closing the mouth, inhale with control and concentration through ida and pingala, so the breath is felt from the throat to the heart and produces a sonorous sound.

Do Kumbhaka as before and exhale through ida. This removes phlegm from the throat and stimulates the jatharagni (digestive fire).

This pranayama, called ujjayi, can be done while moving, standing, sitting, or walking. It removes dropsy and disorders of the nadis (circulation) and dhatus (skin, flesh, bones, marrow, fat and semen).

Ujjayi translates as victorious, ujj means to conquer, be superior in rank. Jaya translates as victory or triumph. This implies that we are to fill our lungs to the point we puff out our chest like that of a proud conquerer.

In English it has also been translated as “psychic breath” because of its calming effect on the mind and nervous system which helps us see clearer.

It is translated as a breathing practice that can become a pranayama when you add breath holding to it, it is also the breathing we naturally fall into when we are sleeping or in deep concentration. And it’s sound does help to relax the physical and mental bodies and helps us develop a deeper awareness of our subtle body and psychic sensitivity — or intuition.

Ujjayi promotes internalization of the senses, which is the 5th limb of yoga called pratyahara, when we internalize our senses it frees up our brain and increases our brain power. Our senses like our eyes and ears are constantly sending messages to our brain that our brain has to interpret — this takes a lot of brain power! By listening to your own breath, the brain does not have to “listen” and instead will take the energy that was listening and put it to other uses in your brain and body.

The sound the breath makes when we put the ujjayi resistance on it creates its own soham/hamso mantra which further deepens the concentration helping one to reach the meditative mind set.

Some translations of the HYP say when used in mediation, asana, or doing other movements such as walking or standing, there is no breath holding, when doing it as a pranayama there is breath holding, tongue mudras, and a closing of the right nostril on exhales.

So we use our glottis to partially close the throat and make almost a snoring sound, when done as a pranayama practice the sound is louder and makes a little rumbling sound on the inhale, when done in asana it is a bit smoother and mellower. Whether you are using it for asana or pranayama it is important to have the sound come from the heart to the throat area, pay attention to have no sound in the nose.

The added sound and resistance creates vibrations in the body, these vibrations are healing, they stimulate the immune system in a very healing way. This is why cats purr, their purring is very healing to their body. 

Level I

We have all been doing in our asana practice, just breath steadily with resistance and sound keeping your tongue up on the roof of your mouth. to make the sound (and resistance) exhale as if you are fogging your glasses to clean them, except exhale through your nose, and do it on both the inhale and the exhale.  Keep the sound of your breath steady from the beginning to the end of each exhale — meaning don’t wooooosh all the air out at the beginning of it and let the exhale peter out, control it so it is smooth and sounds the same from the start of the exhale to the end of the exhale.

This alone will help in deepening your breath awareness because it makes your breath feel more tangible. When this is achieved you can move on to level II.

Level II

This version of ujjayi is very calming. Keep resistance on the breath but now don’t make it loud like we make it during practice, constrict the throat to slow down the breath but keep the sound very soft and light.

Ratio Inhale:Exhale 1:2

  • Inhale both nostrils very slow
  • Exhale left twice as long as the inhale

Repeat 8-12

If you noticed saliva gathering in your mouth, this is a good thing. This is a sign you stimulated the calming side of your nervous system.

Level III

Adding a breath hold (khumbaka), and a left nostril only exhale.
Inhale both nostrils, hold your breath in while closing both nostrils with your right hand in vishnu mudra, adding mula and jalandhara bandhas, while lifting and expanding your chest to its fullest so that when you tuck your chin into jalandhara bandha you get a nice releasing pull at the nape of your neck. This helps to equalize the pressure of the cerebral spinal fluid helping it to flow. Release jalandhara bandha and exhale slowly through the left nostril only.

This looks like:

  • Inhale both nostrils long and slow with a lot of resistance making a slight rumbling sound at the back of your throat, making the inhale as long as you can and filling your lungs to their capacity.
  • Lift your ribs and chest up as far as you can, hold your breath in and tuck your chin into jalandhara bandha, including mula bandha. Many will naturally add uddiyana bandha here, though not specified in the HYP, it seems quite natural to do so. Hold your breath in for as long as you can comfortably. Keep your focus on your ajna chakra (3rd eye center).
  • Lift your chin, place your tongue back up on the roof of your mouth, release your ring finger opening your left nostril and exhale with as much sound as you can as slowly as you can.

Repeat for 8-12 rounds, as you progress you may notice that you average out to about 3 breaths per minute.

So in simple terms, inhale as slow as you can, hold your breath in for as long as you can, and exhale as slow as you can.

Level IV

Adds Khechari mudra to the breath hold and develops a deeper awareness of tongue positions. Khechari mudra is a bit freaky … though the beginning stages of it are not so much. In khechari mudra you turn your tongue backward trying to reach your nasal cavity, though that will not happen for a long time and requires cutting the tendons under your tongue “one hairs breadth” per week until you can reach your tongue back far enough. Instead just turn your tongue backward and first reach to your upper palate, then see if you can reach the soft palate, close your lips, your teeth may be parted or lightly touching. You will find over time you can easily get the tip of your tongue to your soft palate, and it will get easier to hold with practice.

The HYP gives khechari mudra a lot of benefits, it states if you can do this for about a half hour you will be free from all diseases, old age, and your are not tainted by any karmas. That sounds worthwhile!

What the tongue is doing when it reaches the nasal cavity is catching the amrita bindhu or “moon nectar”, which are the hormones secreted by your pituitary gland (stress hormones, sex hormones, adrenal hormones, oxytocin, melanin, and anti-diuretic hormones). Catching and tasting or ingesting these hormones in yogic lore is the fountain of youth..

Khechari Mudra
Image taken from mad4yoga.com

  • Inhale deep, slow, and fully with strong ujjayi sound, tongue up on the roof of your mouth. Fully expanding your lungs and chest with the inhale.
  • Tuck your tongue back into khechari mudra as you tuck your chin into jalandhara bandha, add mula bandha and focus on your ajna chakra. Hold your breath for as long as you can, but comfortably.
  • Lift your chin, release your left nostril (ida) only, and exhale long, slow, fully, and with as much sound as you can.

Repeat for about 10-12 minutes.

Ujjayi done in its simple form  or pranayama form tones our muscles of respiration, soothes the nervous system, removes phlegm, can help relieve insomnia and mental tension, can help therapeutically in throat and bronchial ailments, and lower the risk of heart disease.

Contraindications: Low blood pressure.

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