Ujjayi Pranayam means Breath of the Warrior. When we do this breath, it can make us feel like that—calm, focused, fierce warriors on our mats. It’s often taught as a whispering sound at the back of the throat, so it can also sound like Darth Vader doing sun salutations. It’s a very common instruction to breathe in this way in Power or Flow classes, but teachers rarely break down what it is and how to do it. Most students wheeze their way through class before giving up entirely. The Darth Vader whispering is not actually the point of this breath—it’s more like a side effect of something much deeper going on.
Ujjayi actually starts at your pelvic floor. This little net of muscles gently gathers up, connecting to what’s called the deep core line. This includes your transverse abdominis, which is shaped like a corset surrounding your organs, your breathing diaphragm, and up the throat and tongue. When this whole line is connected, the soft palate gently lifts at the back of the throat, swirling the breath and creating a quiet whispering sound. When the core is engaged in this way, the whispering often happens naturally. It should be loud enough that you can hear your own breath, but the person beside you probably shouldn’t.
The gathering up of these muscles isn’t intended to cut off movement to your belly; rather, it lifts the whole structure of the ribs and widens them out to the sides, giving the lungs more space to breathe into and more work for the diaphragm to do. The belly doesn’t have to expand out on the inhale because the core is lifting the ribs up and out of the way. You can see what this looks like in a short video I made about it:
This is reasonably easy to understand when we are sitting there focusing on nothing but the breath. It can be very effective on its own—I do use it sometimes when I get anxious and need to slow down my thoughts (an ex-boyfriend used to say—"you’re ujjaying me! What’s wrong!”). It’s when we can use it in movement, however, that this breath allows us to enter into a strong, powerful, calm, and delightful moving meditation.
Firstly, we want to understand that breathing is movement. It’s a muscular shape change as the diaphragm descends on the inhale and lifts and contracts on the exhale. We exaggerate this movement by lifting the ribs on the inhale and gently encouraging core contraction on the exhale. Naturally, then, we inhale while we are reaching up or backbending and exhale while we are forward folding or coming closer to the floor. One way to think about sun salutations is as purely an expression of the movement of the breath.
Breath and movement in yoga, however, must work in relationship. Like any relationship, this one takes negotiation. The body slows down or speeds up to match the pace of the breath. The whispering sound at the back of the throat helps us slow down the breath so we can connect it with our movement.
You can try this now by inhaling your arms up towards the sky, and exhaling to bring them back down. Notice how reaching up naturally creates more space for the inhale, and how the belly and ribs naturally contract as you exhale and bring the arms back down. See if you can get the breath and movement to match each other. After ten breaths, relax and notice if you feel any more like a warrior (or Darth Vader).