There is a profound connection between the breath and the mind. When the breath is calm and controlled, so the mind is steady and still.
“Breath is the link between body and mind.”Dan Brule
Ujjayi pranayama, also known as the “victorious breath” or “ocean breath”, encourages full breathing. This is the kind of breathing technique, or pranayama, done in Hatha Yoga.
Ujjayi pranayama is known to be the method of breathing that conquers mental bondage and liberates the mind. When done properly, it can bring total relaxation and complete energy. This allows oxygen to enter the body through the lungs, permeating every cell of the body with life.
This breathing technique creates a soft resonating sound that mimics the sound of ocean waves. This is achieved by letting the breath vibrate through the back of the throat on its way down into the lungs. Practicing this breathing technique allows you to consciously listen to your breathing, becoming mindful of the life force and vital energy that moves through your body as your breath washes in and out of your system.
Ujjayi Breathing Improves Concentration.
The sonorous sound of ujjayi breathing serves as a gentle mantra that helps the brain to focus more clearly. During hatha yoga practice, doing ujjayi breathing helps create a rhythm on which your body can smoothly flow from one asana (yoga pose) to another. It is like music to a dance that is yoga.
Ujjayi Pranayama Stimulates Body Heat.
Another reason why ujjayi breathing is often incorporated during physical yoga practice is that it stimulates body heat, which is necessary to keep the energy flowing. Ujjayi breathing is also believed to promote endurance and help the yoga practitioners hold challenging yoga poses longer.
The 4 Stages of a Breath Cycle
A full cycle of breath is one full inhalation and one full exhalation. However, there are four stages in a breath cycle, not two. When practicing ujjayi or any form of breathing technique, it is important that you are aware of these four stages, taking each stage calmly without exaggerating any of them.
1. Inhalation (Puraka)
As you take a breath in, you allow the oxygen to pour into the lower body and fill all the way to the brim of the collarbones. Keeping your inhalation deep and full will give your body more of the much needed oxygen, not only during your physical yoga practice, but more importantly for every moment of your life.
2. Suspension (Antara Kumbakha)
A moment of suspension happens when your inhalation is complete but the exhalation has not yet started. This moment must be still and quick, and we must not linger on it.
3. Exhalation (Rechaka)
This happens when the breath that you took in is released from the upper body and empties down through to the lower body. Long and smooth exhalation allows the release of breath to be complete and full, helping with the total discharge of toxins and negative energy from the body.
4. Retention (Bahya Kumbhaka)
Finally, there is a gentle retention when the exhalation is complete but the next inhalation has not yet begun. Just like the suspension, retention must be short and quick. Be careful not to linger too long on this stage.
How to Practice Ujjayi Breathing
The most important thing to do before you start practicing ujjayi pranayama is to let your mind relax. Try not to over think the breathing process too much. Breathing must come naturally, and over-thinking may ruin the purpose of this practice.
To start with, sit in any comfortable position, keeping your back straight and your spine lengthened. Do not slouch the body but keep it relaxed. You may keep your eyes closed if that helps you to focus more. Bring your awareness to your breath and visualize the air as it enters and exits your nostrils. Allow the breath to become deep, slow, long, rhythmic, smooth, and calm.
On inhalation, fill the lower belly with air, gradually leading the air up to the rib cage and letting the rib cage expand. Let the air continue to move up to your lungs, and finally the throat. Let the breath softly brush through the back of the throat.
As you exhale, very slowly let go of the breath that you took in, taking your time carefully. Release the air from the top of your body, down to your rib cage as you let it collapse, and finally to your lower belly.
Contract the glottis gently by moving the well of your front throat in towards your back throat. This way, a soft internal sonorous sound resonates from the throat to the heart on inhalation, and from the heart to the throat on exhalation. The sound will resemble a whispering breeze or ocean waves.
If you find it difficult to create the expected sound of ujjayi pranayama, you can begin by whispering “hhhaaaaa” upon exhalation. After a few breaths, you may close the lips and continue the practice, visualizing and creating the same “hhhaaaaa” sound.
Life Force, Energy, and Ujjayi
As your practice of ujjayi breathing deepens, you will notice the polarity of energy within each cycle. As you inhale, the energy is drawn inwards to inspire the body to flow upwards. The exhalation, on the other hand, releases the energy downwards, connecting us back to gravity and the earth.
Because there is an intimate connection between the breath and the mind, your breath can become your true teacher, guiding you properly in several ways. Try to maintain the length and texture of your breathing throughout your practice. Let your breath flow freely and smoothly, and allow it to connect you more consciously to your deeper being.