Ujjayi – What is it, really?

One of the earliest descriptions we have of the pranayama practice known as Ujjayi is in the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (HYP) of Shri Svātmārāma. It comes in his second chapter, verses 51-53, where he is describing a choice of pranayama practices. We must remember that, at this time, yoga was always taught one-to-one and that a teacher would choose the practice most suitable for each individual student. This might not have been the classical Nadi Śodhana.

To quote from verse 51: “with the mouth closed, draw the breath in slowly through both nostrils so that it resounds from the throat to the heart…” This description of Ujjayi as an internal experience clearly makes it a true pranayama.

To provide further motivation for practising it, Ujjayi is said in verse 52 to clear the throat of phlegm and, in modern terms, to increase metabolism. In yoga terms, this would mean Ujjayi has a solar and a heating quality. The other claims made for Ujjayi are purifying of the Nadis (inner channels) and the tissues of the body and that it reduces fluid retention. Interestingly, Svātmārāma also says that Ujjayi can be practised while walking or standing.

This, I believe, is the origin of Ujjayi being taught not only as a pranayama, but as a way of lengthening the breath when working in āsana generally. In this case, one would also practice the sound on exhalation, firstly to make sure that one’s inhalation never took longer than one’s exhalation. Most people, of course, find it much easier to start working with Ujjayi on the exhalation. Once that is established, at some point becomes possible, on turning once breath around from exhalation to inhalation to simply keep the creation of this soft sound in place. This is the way that I aim to introduce students to Ujjayi.

However, I must point out that Ujjayi is not going to suit everybody. While most students will find it perfectly comfortable, if practised in a relaxed way, others may have issues, such as an existing tightness in their throats, that will indicate against Ujjayi being suitable for them. As always, there is no ‘one size fits all’ in yoga. While a particular teacher’s style, such as that of Krishnamacharya’s student K Pattabhi Jois, may include the continuous use of Ujjayi, there are other schools of yoga in which Ujjayi is very much an option.

Now let’s look at the exhalation to go with Ujjayi inhalation. Shri Svātmārāma said to exhale through the left nostril. As reported by his student A G Mohan, Krishnamacharya has added that alternate nostril exhale is to be inferred, that is, that Svātmārāma was saying first exhale through the left and then carry on as usual. Krishnamacharya’s son Desikachar described this complete practice to us as ‘Anuloma Ujjayi’. Anuloma means literally ‘with the hair’, as in, for example, stroking a cat the right way. This was to distinguish it from Viloma Ujjayi, which is the reverse, that is, inhale through alternate nostril is, exhale with this sound in the throat. Anuloma is not a form of pranayama, is merely a description of the sort of pranayama that you are practising, either in the regular, Anuloma way or in the opposite way, against the grain.

To go further into the subtleties of Ujjayi, I believe that it was well known in India at least a thousand years before Svātmārāma. This is because, in the third chapter of Patanjali (sutra 31), he describes meditation on something he described as the Kurma Nadi. The literal translation of this term is ‘tortoise channel’, with the breastbone and the surrounding ribs being likened to the shell of a tortoise. To the experienced practitioner of Ujjayi, such as myself, the connection is obvious, that Patanjali here is describing the practice of Ujjayi in order to access the sensation in the trachea. This can be experienced is the sensation of the breath flowing in and down past the inside of the breastbone and touching the heart. Perhaps this is the meaning of ‘sasvanam’, the ‘resounding’, the making of a connection, in the HYP. Drawing on an older meaning of the word ‘comfort’, which originally meant to give support, we can see how this resounding in the heart would help the practitioner in that older sense, to be comforted and supported, an experience Patanjali describes as a feeling of steadiness.

Krishnamacharya’s most famous student, BKS Iyengar, once said that a noisy practice of Ujjayi is ‘egotistical’. That may well be so, if you’re in a class next to someone who is being noisy with his Ujjayi, it is certainly intrusive. But I would also argue that a noisy Ujjayi is ineffective. In my experience the noisier your Ujjayi, the higher up into the throat it is going to be felt. The softer that you can make your Ujjayi, while keeping it smooth, the closer to the heart will be the comforting feeling of the incoming air gently rubbing inside.

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