I was first fully introduced to Ujjayi Breath (pronounced ooo-jai) in an Ashtanga Yoga workshop. I had heard the term several times before, but had not yet learned to integrate pranayama (extension of the breath or extension of the life force) into my practice.
Oh sure I was breathing, and often heavily(!), but hadn’t yet learned to use my breathing to support my poses.
So there I was attempting to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose) from a standing position. What was I thinking? I had just turned 40 for Buddha’s sake! I shouldn't be doing this!
But you know how it can be in those workshops. No matter how often you remind yourself, “This is not a competition; I don’t need to push myself like this.” My ego gets in the way and I go for it. Good thing I had a great instructor and he taught me Ujjayi or victorious breath, right smack in the middle of that drop back.
How to Practice Ujjayi Breathing
Let’s not start your Ujjayi breathing in such a precarious position though. Let’s start in a nice meditative pose like Lotus (Padmanasa) or even half-lotus. Ujjayi breath can be used as a de-stressor (such as in Lotus pose meditating) or in attempting a difficult movement such as Wheel Pose.
Padmasana - Lotus Pose
- Sit in easy sitting pose (cross legged) and bend your right knee, bringing the lower leg up into a cradle with the outer edge of the foot tucked into the crook of the left elbow. This is sometimes called “rock the baby.” Explore the movement in your hip by rocking your baby.
- When you're nice and loose, inhale deeply and extend your torso toward the inner right leg so the spine lengthens. Exhale and ensure that the lower back does not round.
- Cuddle the outside edge of your foot into the inner left groin, ensuring that your right heel sits comfortably into the left lower belly. Exhale and look to see that the sole of your foot is perpendicular to the floor, not parallel.
- Now either repeat these steps with your left foot or stay here in half-lotus.
- Victorious breath, like most forms of pranayama, is practiced by inhaling and exhaling through the nose.
- Start the breath from the diaphragm, filling the belly like a balloon with your breath. This activates your first and second chakras.
- Allow the breath to move upward to your lower rib cage (third and fourth chakras).
- Bring the breath up further into your upper chest and throat (fifth chakra).
- On the exhale deflate your chest and belly from the throat down through each chakra ending by deflating the belly.
The simplest way to know if you are using your Ujjayi breath is to create the ocean sound often associated with victorious or conqueror’s breath. Technically, this ocean sound is created by moving the glottis (you know, that hangy-ball thing in the back of your throat) as air passes in and out.
Don’t know how to control your glottis? Neither do I! But I still learned to use Ujjayi breath to complete that back bend.
Try this: Close your eyes and open your mouth, directing the out going breath slowly across the back of your throat with a drawn out HAAA sound. Give this a couple tries until you've got it down.
Now close your mouth and give it another try by directing the breath slowly across the back of your throat. Did you hear that ocean noise? That’s it, you've got it!
This sound is called ajapa mantra (pronounced ah-JOP-ah mahn-trah, the "unspoken mantra"). It helps to slow the breath down and focus awareness on the breath. When you get really good at combining your Ujjayi breath with your movements, you can begin monitoring and adjusting the evenness of the sound and the smoothness and flow of your breath.
Bet you’re wondering how I did in that drop back? Well I did it (with some help from the instructor) and I was very proud of my accomplishment. Honestly I don’t try drop backs very often, but I do use my Ujjayi breath in every class, and every time I begin to get a bit stressed out. Give it a try it right now!