Tristana combines three elements that should occur in parallel during practice in every Asana. They are BREATH, BANDHA, and DRISHTI. In this article, I will describe UJJAYI, a way of breathing specific to Ashtanga Yoga.
The first meaning we derive from the word UJJAYI. The name means victorious breath, victory over death, a breath that gives strength to victory (UJ – life, JAY – victory).
What is this victory over death? According to yoga texts, death means mental illnesses, physical illnesses of everyday life, and also pain. Death is worry and torment, both mental and physical. We die every day because we suffer.
According to Yoga Texts, this Pranayama allows healing of the torment of the senses, mind, and body.
The second meaning for UJJAYI breath is ‘ocean breath’ because the sound of this Pranayama is like the sound of the ocean; it calms the mind.
The third compares UJJAYI to a baby’s breath, which is very gentle and simultaneously produces a subtle sound. When practicing in the group, only you should hear your Pranayama and, at most, the closest surroundings but not the person at the other end of the Shala.
We try to bring out this sound in this pranayama because it means the child is resting and relaxing deeply. Practicing in a group, when the wave of this breath vibrates around, we immediately feel its soothing and toning energy. It is because UJJAYI helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body and mind. So there is also effortlessness in UJJAYI breath.
We recognize the dominance of one of the elements (imbalance of elements) and a range of emotions through the sound and sensations of the body.
Excess of Earth and Moisture (cold mucus – under-energized Spleen and Kidneys / Bladder) manifests by the heaviness of breathing, a feeling of ‘lump in the throat,’ ‘clotting’ of the larynx and mouth, and high saliva density. The sound is then slightly bubbling, ‘earthy’ – it reminds me of a variety of puerh tea, this specific heaviness of incomplete fermentation.
On the other hand, too much of the Fire element (hot Liver and Heart) causes a dry and scratchy throat that begins to choke us and creates the need to moisten the throat during practice. The sound is more wheezy, manifesting in dryness (dry desert wind). This breath strongly stimulates the heart, making it beat faster. It can lead to feelings of anger during practice; it can also move and localize to the collarbone area, causing the heart-loading and most shallow type of breathing.
One more characteristic combination creates ‘hot slime,’ one of the most dangerous combinations of Water, Earth, and Fire. It synthesizes the dominant elements of the previous sounds – “bubbling, wheezing” (like boiling water in a boiler releasing large amounts of heat) and the unbearable, moist, thick, and hot sound of hot slime spilling like volcanic lava. In addition, it is accompanied by the feeling of a light gust of fiery wind burning everything it encounters. This breath paralyzes/burns the Nadis (meridians), stretches the tendons and veins to the limit, sometimes throbs in the temples (can lead to migraines), and pools blood in the head, neck, and high in the chest, causing the body to turn blood red.
This breath paralyzes/burns the Nadis (meridians), stretches the tendons and veins to the breaking point, sometimes throbs in the temples (can lead to migraines), and pools blood in the head, neck or high in the chest, causing the body to turn blood red.
The correct UJJAYI breath should be like a warm breeze – slightly warmed, moist, subtle, free – then all the elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air) are balanced.
UJJAYI’s breathing rhythm is of great importance. First, inhalation and exhalation should be even and uninterrupted – this is essential (KALA – we count the length of the breath). Second, we count the number of breaths (SANKHYABHIH).
There are two more aspects here that, despite maintaining the previous parameters, can make our UJJAYI breath unable to bring the assumed effect of practice. The first happens when the breathing rhythm leads to the freezing the nervous system and its patterns. The second causes excessive combustion, loss of vitality, and wrestling with patterns, thus strengthening them. For the Teacher, and above all, for the Student, it is crucial to catch these records because the practice that energizes and nourishes them acts like a badly used knife, which, instead of cutting bread and feeding us, will hurt or kill us in the long term.
According to Yoga Teachers, UJJAYI Pranayama is the only one we can safely practice at any time during the day, in any position, and any place. Therefore, The UJJAYI breath gives you freedom because you can do it anywhere. I use it during every activity – my body chose it years ago as the most economical and energizing.
This Pranayama’s important technical and characteristic aspects are: breathing through the throat, the air rubbing the larynx, and touching the vocal cords, producing this specific sound. The mouth should be closed, the teeth separate, and the tongue hanging in the middle or directed downwards – not touching the palate. Inhaling and exhaling in this way with the mouth closed activates the Alpha brainwaves responsible for deep relaxation while maintaining mindfulness, awareness and logic. The second variant, with the mouth open during exhaling, activates Theta waves – appearing during trance, hypnosis, intense emotions and shallow sleep. These waves are accompanied by a departure from logical thinking.
This Pranayama uses full yogic breathing (3 steps), activating the abdominal, thoracic, and clavicular spaces. The place (height) where the air touches the throat also matters and affects the quality of the Pranayama and its sound. Here, we can also distinguish three levels: the top of the larynx (at this level, UJJAYI appears first in the feeling), the center of the larynx, and the bottom to which we want to bring this breath – we place it as low on the larynx as possible.
The internal organs are not only pulled to the spine but sucked in and pulled upwards, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to the entire body. UJJAYI, therefore also nourishes the cells of the body. The determinant of this action is BANDHAS (I will write about them in the next section), which is also of three types.
An essential element of this Pranayama is to keep the inhalation and exhalation of equal lengths and not to pause between them. The breath should flow freely, without reaching the limits of inhalation or exhalation, without striving. UJJAYI changes direction smoothly and softly. The Yoga Sutras describe the breath as being subtle (SUKSHMA) and long, slow (DIRGHA). And according to the ancient text, ‘Countless Creatures carry Yin on their backs and embrace Yang on their chests,’ the inhale rises up the front of the body, lifts the front, lifts us away from the Earth, the exhale flows down the back, relaxes and brings energy to the Earth. Therefore, the strongest activation of Mula Bandha is at the end of the exhalation and at the same time at the beginning of the inhalation, which is very noticeable during the Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog).
After mastering free, even rhythm and other qualities, you can start UJJAYI practice with Khumbaka’s ‘equilateral triangle’ and (after that) ‘square.’ In the equilateral triangle practice, you inhale – then hold your breath (the same length as inhaling) – and then exhale. It is the first, most basic practice of holding your breath. Pranayama ‘in a square’ is the breath retention both after inhaling and exhaling.
The equilateral triangle and the square have sides of the same length, which means one keeps the pace and rhythm of the breath equally. And it is not about ‘feeling’ this length as equal, but about counting the duration in inhalation, retention, and exhalation.
For medicinal purposes, this Pranayama is advised for people with ailments such as high blood pressure, lung disease, asthma, and heart disease. With these problems, you should pay attention to refrain from holding your breath, which means not doing Khumbaka between inhalation and exhalation and between exhalation and inhalation. UJJAYI cleanses the throat and vocal cords (then the timbre of the voice changes very often, it decreases and becomes more sonorous) and helps with thyroid diseases.
UJJAYI practice time should be at least 3 minutes, preferably 10-15 minutes.
Other benefits of UJJAYI breathing:
- relaxes the body
- calms the mind before any practice, either concentration or meditation
- helps with anxiety and depression
- nourishes and restores energy
- helps in sleeping, restores good sleep, helps with snoring
- increases lung capacity and lung strength
- oxygenates the brain so it works better as a result; oxygen reaches both cerebral hemispheres, balancing them,
- increases body temperature, warms the blood, and circulation occurs throughout the body, which helps to cleanse it
- builds self-confidence and mental strength
- treats all body diseases in the area of the throat and larynx