Ujjayi is a sanskrit word comprising of the syllable ‘Ud‘, meaning upward movement. It can also mean puffing or expanding. It suggests a sense of power and importance. ‘Jaya’ means take-over, conquest, victory, success; and can also mean restraint or curbing from the opposite point of view. It is called the victor’s breath because the expansion perks up one’s confidence in the same way as that of a victorious warrior.
“Brreeeaathhhe in Ujjayi...”, would be a very common instruction one would hear teachers shout out in any Ashtanga Yoga class. And for a reason. Ujjayi breathing deepens our connection with ourselves, restricts our thought processes, generates heat, helps us being with and feeling the posture, does not tire us and calms the mind. Moreover, as we focus on the sound of our breath (nadanusandhana), it becomes easier to concentrate and turn our practice into a moving meditation. The whispering sound becomes an auditory cue which anchors our attention and thus makes breath the heart of our practice. Ujjayi therefore, is an effective tool of pratyahara (sense withdrawal). Asanas and vinyasas practiced with Ujjayi breath leave you feeling high and calm at the same time.
Well there is a difference between Ujjayi breath and Ujjayi pranayama but for this article particularly I don’t need to separate them as we are dealing with the science behind the breath and not touching the breath retention part which essentially makes it a pranayama.
Ujjayi is also referred to as the psychic breath as the mechanism of breathing has subtle effects on the brain processes.
Due to the partial constriction of the throat, the lobes of the lungs are required to be expanded to the maximum extent for completing the puraka (inhalation), and the chest and abdomen are required to be contracted to the maximum extent for completing the rechaka (exhalation). Hence the unused capacity of the lungs is brought to use resulting in higher oxygen transfer.
The extended movement of the lungs increases the movement of blood, fluid and nervous energy through the body in a way they would not normally be, unless we were running. When we exercise or run, the muscles contract but the same effect is achieved in Ujjayi keeping the muscles of the body in a relaxed state. This is very beneficial.
The smaller opening due to constriction lets less air through, which makes the breath last longer. Breathing slowly induces calm, due to its connection with the parasympathetic nervous system.
The contraction of the throat caused by Ujjayi exerts a gentle pressure on the carotid sinuses in the head which regulate blood pressure in the arteries leading to reduced tension and slower thought process.
I can’t help but feel awed by the sages who brought together yoga before we made inroads into scientific discoveries and inventions. Practice regularly under expert guidance, progressing step-wise.
Gregor Maehle, an author and a yoga teacher has put it very aptly when he says, “Remember the connection between breath and movement: every movement comes out of breath. Rather than moving with and following the breath, the breath should initiate the movement. Practicing this way, we will be moved by the breath like the autumn wind picking up leaves.”
“Remember the connection between breath and movement: every movement comes out of breath. Rather than moving with and following the breath, the breath should initiate the movement. Practicing this way, we will be moved by the breath like the autumn wind picking up leaves.” - Gregor Maehle