There are many forms of breath-work in yoga (called pranayama). Some are very active and stimulating, and there are times when these pranayamas are beneficial. But to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest-and-digest system, we need the slow, deep pranayama known as ujjayi.
Jaya means victory. Ujjayi means victorious or conquering. It is so called because the technique allows us to become victorious in pranayama. Pranayama means extension or stretching of prana, and this is exactly what Ujjayi does. A poetic term for this is “ocean breathing.”
By closing the epiglottis, we produce a gentle hissing or whispering sound and we can use this sound to distribute the breath and prana to whichever area in our body we want.
The sound is quite similar to that of a wave washing up on the shore and then washing back down again (even, calming & gentle). It is important that the vocal cords are not engaged so that there is no humming component to the sound.
In Max Strom’s A Life Worth Breathing, he describes the practice of ocean breathing well: imagine you are trying to fog your sunglasses for cleaning. Try to make this “haahhh” sound on both exhalation and inhalation. At first, do this with your mouth open until you can create the soft sound of the waves coming ashore habitually, without thinking about it. Only then, move to make the same sound with your mouth closed.
Another way to understand which muscles are used to produce the sound in Ujjayi is to try to whisper something. For example, you take an inhalation through the nose, you whisper something (e.g. my name is X) and then you quickly close the mouth and exhale through the nose. This way the epiglottis will still be closed because you whispered and you will be able to produce the sound through your nose.
Ocean breathing enlivens and expands the lungs, dynamically pulling in the fresh air and expelling stale air and stress. It calms the mind and can be very effective for processing grief. If you experience emotions or even some tears from using the ocean breath, simply receive it as a healing experience.
The Ujjayi sound should be audible mainly to you or, in a quiet room, to the people right next to you. If the sound is too loud you will strain, thereby activating the sympathetic nervous system, and fail in slowing down the heartbeat and lowering blood pressure.
In his book, The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar recommends our attention be first focused on the exhalation. Practice watching your out-breath until you know everything about it. Only then, allow your awareness to encompass the inhalations. Then, know everything about the in-breath. Don’t worry about the practice of retaining your breath, of holding the breath with lungs full or empty. Instead, allow your ocean breath to lengthen, but don’t force it. Surf the breath, and flow with the waves. Desikachar advises that lengthening the breath, while okay, it is not the point. The point is to do whatever it takes to stay focused and present, paying attention to the breath. There definitely are physiological and psychological benefits to an extended breath, which we will investigate on a later article.
Here’s what it might look like: when you have arrived at that still point in your pose, begin to make the sound of the ocean. Start first with your mouth open. Allow the breath to slow. Count to five as you inhale, count to five as you exhale. This totals ten counts, equivalent to six breaths per minute. Next, try it with your mouth closed. Make this into a habit. Whenever you do a pose, start to surf your ocean breath. Eventually, you will be able to do the ocean breath all the time—and not just in your yoga practice. Next, focus your full attention inward. Notice what it feels like to breathe. Notice everything about your breath and what happens as you breathe.
During Ujjayi we try to make the inhalation even with the exhalation and we try to make the sounds as similar as possible. But note that, even after all your efforts, each has its own distinct character.
It is important to understand that pranayama is not exhausted nor is it completed by applying the Ujjayi breath during my asana practice. That is only the tip of the iceberg. So Ujjayi in asana is a preparation of higher yogic techniques so that when the time comes to do a seated practice, we are firmly established in the fundamentals of pranayama & meditation.
You can listen to the Ujjayi sound on the following video:
The Hamsa Mantra
Ujjayi is the constant pronunciation of a mantra (Hamsa= I am that) that which proclaims we are not that which changes and decays but that which is permanent, immutable, infinite and immortal – pure awareness.
On average, twenty-one thousand, six hundred times a day we chant the mantra Hamsa. “Ha” is the sound of the breath on our exhalations and “sa” is the sound of the inhalations. Some traditions reverse this, and the mantra is called “So’ham”—we hear “hmmm” on the inhalation and a sighing “sa” on the exhalation. Iyengar says they are actually combined; every creature creates so’ham on the inhalation (which means “That am I”) and hamsa on the exhalation (which means “I am that”). This is called the “ajapa mantra.”
While we chant this barely audible mantra with each breath, we can feel energy moving within us. Close your eyes and notice the way your energy state is altered while you inhale and exhale. Experiment with hearing “ham” on the inhalation and “sa” on the exhalation. Does this feel energizing or calming for you? Next, reverse it. Hear “sa” on the inhalation and “ham” on the exhalation. Does this change the energetic feelings?
Like the ocean breath, hamsa breathing can be used outside of your yoga practice. We all have times in life when we are too stoked up and need to relax. The hamsa breath can be useful then. At other times, we need a quick boost of energy, and the opposite breath may be ideal.
Yoga Meditation / Pranayama– Gregor Maehle
The Heart of Yoga – T.K.V. Desikachar
The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga – Bernie Clark
A Life Worth Breathing – Max Strom