Ujjayi, pronounced as ‘ooh-JAI-yee’, is a sanskrit term meaning victory; and pranayama means the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises; therefore, ujjayi pranayama means “victorious breathing”, and in the yogic traditions, this breathing technique helps you achieve victory over the unsettled mind.
Ujjayi pranayama is frequently practiced in many yoga classes because of its simplicity and effectiveness. Due to the way this breathing style elongates the breath and brings focus through sound, it is especially helpful for stimulating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which brings about a relaxation response in the body. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone. When we are ramped up with stress (an over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system), conscious breathing techniques, such as Ujjayi Pranayama, where there is good diaphragmatic movement and extending the length of the exhale, are especially helpful.
Ujjayi pranayama requires a slight constriction in the back of the throat by engaging your whisper muscles which produces a light audible quality to the breath and creates a warmth in the throat where the vagus nerve runs through. The sound encourages a wakening of the inner ear, and as we listen to that sound, it anchors our attention.
How to do Ujjayi Pranayama
To learn this breath, exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging up a mirror, making a “haaa” sound from the back of the throat. Practice this a few times and see if you can extend the length of the “haaa” sound. Now, breathe in the same manner but close your mouth and exhale out of your nose, noticing the whisper sound coming from the back of the throat. Some people describe the sounds like the waves of the ocean.
It is important to note the sound produced by the constriction of the throat is traditionally done on both the inhale and exhale; however, I find it helpful to start with practicing making the sound only on the exhale, at least until it becomes more familiar and comfortable.
Start with an even count for your inhale and exhale. For even deeper relaxation, gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4-count on the inhale and exhale the exhale to a 6 or 8 count exhale. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.