Ujjayi Pranayama - Steps & Benefits of Ocean Breathing
Deepen your yoga practice with Ujjayi Pranayama, a breathing technique to energize the body and mind. Surrender to the ocean sound as a wave of warmth and calmness washes over you. In this post, we discuss the steps, contraindications, and Ujjayi Pranayama benefits.
Ujjayi Pranayama is a form of 'modified' yoga breathing to restore the natural pattern of our breath. In yoga, it is used to calm the mind, reduce anxiety, improve concentration, and regulate body temperature.
Ujjayi involves breathing through the nostrils while gently constricting or tightening the throat. Doing so creates a soft hissing sound during inhalation and exhalation. This rhythmic “ocean sound” anchors the mind and acts as a metronome for movement and awareness.
This 'ocean breath' promotes full engagement of the diaphragm and stimulates the nervous system’s rest/relaxation response. You can practice it anytime, anywhere. It can be done while standing, lying down (supine or prone), or sitting on a firm chair with the correct posture.
Meaning and Etymology
Ujjayi (ooo-jai) is a combination of two Sanskrit words – Ud (upwards) + Jaya (victory or success). Thereby, Ujjayi Pranayama translates to 'to lift upwards' or 'the breath of victory.' Lift what, you ask? Lift the chest as you breathe, and also lift prana to the mind in this context.
Sanskrit : Ud (उद्) and Ji (जि) = “Ujji” (उज्जि)
Ujjayi Pranayama is also called Ocean Breath, Victorious Breath, Conqueror’s breath, and Cobra Breath. Ocean breath refers to the wave-like sound made while breathing. Victorious or Conqueror’s Breath alludes to the expansion of the chest during Ujjayi, resembling the demeanor of a victorious conqueror.
Ujjayi Pranayama Benefits
Ujjayi generates mild heat in the body.
It soothes the nerves and has a calming effect on the mind.
It has a comforting effect on the emotional and mental sheaths (kosha).
Ujjayi activates the parasympathetic system and lowers blood pressure and heart rate.
It may be helpful for insomnia or sleep disorders.
Under expert guidance, Ujjayi pranayama may alleviate chronic respiratory conditions.
Ujjayi Pranayama Steps
Sit in a meditative posture and do a few minutes of even, rhythmic breathing. Link the mind to the breath and block out external distractions.
Bring your awareness to the throat and partially close the throat Nadi (the glottis). The glottis is a section of the throat containing the opening between the vocal cords.
Compress the throat gently and inhale. Contraction should not cause strain. Beginners tend to constrict the throat muscles tightly, which causes tightness in facial muscles.
The chest rises and the abdomen contracts while inhaling. If done correctly, inhalation creates something between a soft snore and a hiss.
Once the lungs are full, hold your breath (Antara kumbhaka) for as long as comfortable.
Initially, you should retain the breath for 2 seconds and increase it gradually. Draw awareness to the third-eye center (Ajna) during breath retention.
Three types of people should skip breath retention – a) beginners learning Ujjayi, b) people with health conditions aggravated by breath retention, and c) people who use Ujjayi breathing for therapeutic effect or relaxation.
Exhale through both nostrils while producing the same sound. The stomach or belly should be completely relaxed and distended to the maximum.
This is one round of Ujjayi Pranayama.
Breathing should be slow, smooth, prolonged (like in three-part breath), and deep enough to fill the lungs. The abdomen and chest will expand and fall as you breathe in and out.
We emphasize that there should be no strain during Ujjayi pranayama. It takes some work initially. Over time, Ujjayi breathing becomes graceful and effortless.
Time and Duration
Ujjayi pranayama can be done at any time of the day on an empty stomach. Beginners are encouraged to learn the pranayama after chest openers. One may use the support of yoga props like lean bolsters. Start with 5 to 7 seven rounds and add 1 or 2 rounds per week. Or, you can start with 3 to 5 minutes and gradually increase to 15 minutes.
Recommended Yoga Mudras and Sitting Posture
Yoga mudras (hand gestures) should align with functional or spiritual goals. Adi Mudra or Udana Vayu Mudra are ideal for beginners who are learning Ujjayi Pranayama. Use Chin mudra or Chinmaya mudra if you follow up pranayama with meditation.
The Ocean Breath can be done in a variety of yoga poses while sitting, kneeling, or standing. The following are suitable sitting or supine positions for Ujjayi:
Easy Pose – Sukhasana
Corpse Pose - Savasana
Crocodile Pose - Makarasana
Thunderbolt Pose – Vajrasana
Accomplished Pose - Siddhasana
Lotus Pose - Padmasana
Ujjayi pranayama is contraindicated in low blood pressure, pregnancy, heart conditions, constipation, fever, acidity, and chronic fatigue. Skip breath retention and bandhas if you have anxiety or hypertension. People with back pain, lumbar spondylosis, or slipped disc should use a prone posture like Crocodile Pose or kneeling postures like Virasana or Ananda Madirasana.
According to Swami Satyananda, introverted people should avoid Ujjayi Pranayama. We believe he says this because you practice Ujjayi pranayama to 'turn inward in yoga. It may aggravate introversion.
Ocean Breath: The Ujjayi Pranayama Sound
Take time to fully understand the ‘Ujjayi sound’ before you practice the pranayama. It is not the "Darth Vader" sound as some resources proclaim. The sound is a faint whisper occurring due to the narrowed passage at the back of the throat.
The mechanism can be understood by whispering “Haa” or “Ahhhh.” While doing so, you will constrict the glottis. Alternatively, place your palm in front of your mouth. Whisper “Haaa” over the palm, as if you are trying to fog a mirror.
That's the sound of the "ocean breath" – just a little more exaggerated than what we produce during Ujjayi pranayama. You did it with the mouth open in this case. In Ujjayi breathing, we make the same sound during inhaling and exhaling with the mouth closed.
The sound occurs for the entire Ujjayi pranayama session. It should be steady in volume and pitch. Don't attempt it consciously. Instead, apply the correct pressure to constrict the throat. The sound will occur naturally due to internal friction during the pranayama practice.
The tricky part for beginners is to apply steady pressure for the entire practice. You "master" the sound when you can hold the constriction effortlessly.
When to do Ujjayi Pranayama
At the start of your pranayama routine
Traditionally, Ujjayi breathing is done in the first half of a pranayama routine after preliminary yoga breathing exercises like the three-part breath. It soothes the nerves, relaxes the body, and has a mildly heating effect.
Preparation for Jalandhara Bandha
The gentle constriction of Ujjayi pranayama prepares you for Jalandhara Bandha – the Throat Lock in yoga. Several pranayama variations use Ujjayi during the resting phase or during the out-breath. That said, one should not attempt bandhas without proficiency in Ujjayi breathing.
Before you settle down to meditate
The rhythmic, 'ocean-like sound' of Ujjayi Pranayama anchors the mind and acts as a metronome for movement and awareness. It is the foundation of pratyahara – the fifth step of Ashtanga yoga that involves turning the senses inward. It is, therefore, used in preparation for meditation or during the resting phase of other yoga breathing exercises.
During Yoga Asanas in Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa
Ujjayi pranayama supports the movement of prana from the Root Chakra to the Crown Chakra. In some yoga schools, intermediate and advanced practitioners are encouraged to do Ujjayi breathing during yoga asana. It generates heat and optimizes energy flow. That said, beginners should not attempt to do this. Breathe normally while practicing postural yoga until you learn Ujjayi as a standalone practice.
Before bed or to reduce stress and anxiety
Practicing Ujjayi pranayama in a supine pose like Savasana may provide relief in insomnia and other sleep disorders. In this context, attempt 8 to 10 rounds using a slow count. Bring awareness to the breath and keep the body relaxed. Additionally, you can do ten rounds of Ujjayi pranayama before a guided Yoga Nidra session.
Ujjayi Pranayama in Classic Yoga Texts
Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita are the two classical yoga resources that teach Ujjayi pranayama. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains Ujjayi Pranayama in verses 51 through 53 in Chapter 2. It states one can do Ujjayi pranayama while walking or sitting.
The same notion is backed up in numerous modern texts on yoga and pranayama. Both Swami Satyananda and BKS Iyengar mention that you can practice Ujjayi breathing in any position as long as you are not retaining the breath.
According to HYP, regularly practicing Ujjayi pranayama cures the defects in the dhatus (lymph, blood, muscles, fat, bone, marrow, and semen). It also balances the doshas (i.e., Vata, Pitta, Kapha) and destroys edema (excess fluid in body tissues and cavities).
In the Gheranda Samhita, the benefits of the pranayama include curing ailments related to phlegm, strengthening the nervous system, and improving digestion. It also provides relief in indigestion, fever, constipation, and an enlarged spleen.
Ujjayi pranayama can be used as a preparatory practice for meditation because it moves prana upwards and calms the nervous system. For example, yogis can perform Kechari Mudra, followed by Ujjayi Breathing in Padmasana before a long meditation session.
Ujjayi is not forceful breathing. No pranayama advocates straining the lungs. The purpose is to reset your rest/relax response. The goal of Ujjayi pranayama is to "create and surrender to the sound and rhythm of breathing." You can't achieve that forcefully.
Nor can you achieve this in the first yoga session. Your breathing will deepen naturally over time. You may feel dizzy or faint if you disregard your natural capacity. In some cases, it may lead to light-headedness. When it happens, revert to natural breathing in a relaxed posture.