Ujjayi pranayama: how to breathe victoriously

Many group classes devote little time for explanation on how to breathe in yoga practice. There can be pressure for teachers to please students, skipping straight to the exciting postures in limited class time-frames. Unfortunately this gives less emphasis to the subtle internal practice that takes place on the mat. Ujjayi pranayama is commonly translated as ‘victorious breath’ and it is central to the practice of Ashtanga yoga and other Vinyasa styles.

The Sanskrit word Ujjayi is derived from the root ‘ji’ which means ‘to conquer’ or ‘aquire by conquest’ and the prefix ‘ud’ which means bondage. Ujjayi therefore is the pranayama giving freedom from bondage. Pranayama is comprised of two roots. ‘prana’ and ‘ayama’. Ayama is an ‘extending’ or stretching. While Prana is the “life force” or “universal energy” which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Pranayama therefore is an extending or stretching of the dimension of prana to which the breath is closely related. Pranayama utilizes breathing to increase the flow of prana In the ‘nadis’ (energy channels) in the energy body. Here are some of the characteristics of Ujjayi breathing:

Still the mind by focusing on the breath

Ujjayi breathing increases oxygen intake and expands the breath. By breathing consciously, our awareness becomes sensitive to the respiratory process and away from mental chatter. During practice when we notice our mind wandering we simply bring attention back to the breath.

Only through the nose

Ujjayi pranayama is performed through the nose. Using the mouth expels more heat, moisture and energy. We want to keep this energy for those fiery practices!

Rhythmic, smooth, long, deep and slow respiration

Ujjayi breathing creates calm content states of mind. The breath should be both ‘dirga’ (long, prolonged, slow) and ‘suksma’ (subtle, fine, smooth). Ancient yogi’s noticed animals with slower breathing rates such as elephants and tortoises have long life spans, while those such as birds or rabbits live much shorter.

Internal heating

The friction of the air passing through the lungs and throat generates internal body heat. It is similar to a massage for the internal organs; as the core becomes warm from the inside, the body becomes prepared for the asana practice. When the muscles are warm it is safer to stretch without injury.

Gently constricting the throat

A slight constriction of the glottis, the upper opening of the larynx is done in the throat by partially closing it with the epiglottis. The epiglottis is the lid that stops liquid from going down the wrong tube when drinking, and remains open when we breathe. The contraction causes a smooth ocean sound as the air swirls in the throat.

Audible sound

Listening to the breath is a form of ‘pratyahara’, to (withdraw the senses inwards) as a meditation aid. The sound is also a guide to how freely the breath is moving. In more demanding postures remind yourself to come back to a smooth, long deep breath.

Expanding in all directions

Ujjayi breathing utilises the full volume of the lungs. The breath fills the abdomen (though the belly does not protrude due to a gentle firming of the stomach – Uddiyana Bandha). Radiating outwards through the intercostals, into the front back and side ribs. Finally filling the lungs with last drops of air in the clavicular (collar bone) region.

Unifying breath and movement

Every movement is initiated by the breath. The natural motion of the breath ripples through the body and carries you into and out of alignment. As you inhale there is a natural elongation of the spine and sense of lifting, while the exhalation releases and deepens. For more information you can read my post on Living breathing asana. How to bring your postures to life.


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