Discipline Through Breath

Written by: Ramona C.

West Coast Sweat Ramona

Bikram yoga changed my life. It’s helped me become physically stronger, more flexible, and thinner. But the life-changing part has nothing to do with that. Through Bikram, I’ve been able to regularly and actively practice discipline. Practicing discipline gives me patience and a real sense of inner peace. Now, I’m a total cynic who’s known for teaching the masterclass in Snark 101, so I know that sounds like a tired old claim made by just about every hippie/pseudo-guru that’s ever existed, but in this case, I can testify that it’s actually happening. It’s been a revelation. Bad drivers don’t even bother me now. Discipline has been an incidental reward for stillness and breath control.

I took my first Bikram class in the summer of New Orleans in 2002. You know how great the coolness feels when you walk outside after class? That didn’t exist in New Orleans. There was really no discernible difference between the yoga room and an average summer day. I absolutely hated my first class. Each time we were instructed to take savasana between the floor series postures, I thought, “This HAS to be the last pose.” And then the instructor would tell us to prepare for a sit-up and all of my hopes and dreams would be dashed. When he FINALLY said, “This is the last sit-up and final pranayama,” I couldn’t get out of that room fast enough. I think I even picked up my mat and darted for the door even before “namaste.” I swore that I’d never ever do that to myself again. I honestly can’t remember what got me back in that room, but I did somehow return, and seven years later, I was front and center as the studio’s poster girl. My Standing Boat Pose was a full split with squared hips and I could hover in a full expression of Toe Stand all day long. I absolutely loved it! But what I didn’t realize at the time was that after seven years in the hot room, my practice had barely begun.

Near the end of 2009, my Bikram practice gradually tapered off until it came to a complete standstill. Nursing school had packed my schedule, and my new life got in the way. By 2016, I was a beast in the intensive care unit, but my spiritual and emotional life had spiraled into a very dark place. I knew that going back to Bikram would start lifting the black cloud, but by this time, it wasn’t a busy life that got in the way: it was pride. I didn’t go back when I knew I should have because I was ashamed to return to my old studio in the state I was in. I would be demonstrating how far I’d fallen, how much weight I had gained, how weak and stiff I had become.

I moved to Long Beach at the end of 2016, and the darkness inside of me progressed into an all-out black hole. Life held no joy for me. I was an ICU nurse who took far better care of my patients than of myself. Everything came to a head when I finally had to make a choice between life and death. Vanity and pride were no longer considerations. I just needed help.

On June 21, 2018, just two days after my forty-third birthday, I dragged my sorry butt down to West Coast Sweat for my first Bikram class in almost ten years. During that first class, my only goal was to stay in the room for the whole ninety minutes. I did. And then I came back the next day, and the next day, and the next. Physical and emotional health was my new priority, so I quit my trauma-inducing job and set out to do thirty classes in thirty days. I think I made it to about twenty-seven, but who’s counting?

During that first thirty-day challenge, I committed to being very gentle with myself. I had accepted that I had changed a great deal in the last ten years, and that my practice would be very different this time around. All vanity was gone. My only focus was to heal. After staring at my overweight self in the mirror, wearing little more than a bikini, over time I became less ashamed. I was wholly patient in my practice. You know how they always say, “Start where you are” Well, I did just that. I didn’t judge myself. I just kept breathing and did whatever the instructor told me to do. I knew the poses intimately from my previous practice, but I discovered that I’d never really known the truth of the practice until I restarted in June.

The truth in my Bikram practice is discipline. I’ve accidentally cultivated discipline in the yoga room over the last four months. I can still barely balance on one foot, and my body will likely never be as strong or as flexible as it used to be, but I can say that, without a doubt, my practice is better and more powerful than it has ever been.

The two most important aspects of my practice are stillness and patience. I have found that discipline has grown organically from my deep focus on those two core intentions. Breath is at the very heart of that evolution. Every aspect of the practice began falling into place once I made maintaining a slow and steady breath the single most important priority.

For me, maintaining calm even breaths through the nose takes priority over every other aspect of the practice. It’s more important than endurance, more important than form, and more important than depth. I’ve discovered that endurance, form, and depth are the inevitable byproducts of maintaining a slow and even breath. In fact, I believe that endurance, form, and depth should be prioritized in that exact order: breath first, then endurance, then form, and finally depth. In Standing Head to Knee pose we often hear, “The posture has not started until you lock your knee.” I would argue that NO posture has started until the breathing is slow and even. Bikram himself has actually implied this as the priority by including an opportunity for stillness between each and every posture. The stillness between the standing postures and the savasanas between each floor posture are designed to remind us how to relax and BREATHE!

I don’t have to tell you that the Bikram sequence is ridiculously hard, but I think the struggle is why it works. It’s so incredibly difficult that your only choices are to fight it or to surrender to it. Fighting it is a lost cause and will only serve to make your practice devolve. As an experiment, I recommend, for just one single class, or even just one single pose, surrendering to the suffering and just focus on the breath and see what happens. Once breath is sacrificed, everything else will eventually crumble. In my previous practice, I might have been able to achieve the full expression of every posture, but after seven years, I couldn’t maintain a six-second breath for the whole ninety minutes. Now that I can, I feel that I am only just beginning to understand Bikram yoga.

So, the question I’d like to address is, how is a slow and steady breath maintained in even the most strenuous postures? I will list some things that have worked for me:

  1. I get to the hot room as early as I can in order to acclimatize myself to the heat, but also to transition my breath and relax my body. I strive to remain in a completely motionless savasana for at least fifteen minutes before class. I even set my vibrating watch alarm to three minutes before class time so that I can pee, and that way, my mind is not distracted by wondering what time it is. I use the time to focus on relaxing my whole body and on deepening my inhales and exhales. My goal is to maintain a rhythm of eight seconds in, three second pause, eight seconds out, three second pause. This may seem kind of weird, but this is the system I’ve discovered works to get me into a deep meditative state.
  2. I give 100% to Standing Deep Breathing Pranayama. It’s not a coincidence that it is the very first thing the sequence asks of you. I heard the Pranayama dialogue for many years before I actually HEARD the dialogue. (And I still hear things I’ve never truly heard before.)During the inhale, we are told to, “Expand your lungs until your ribcage is visible in the mirror.” I’m aware that this might make me sound kind of clueless, but there was a time (before I was an ICU nurse, obviously) that I did what I was told and stuck my ribcage out until I saw it in the mirror without realizing the reason for doing so. The instructor told me to do it, so I did. That was the beginning and end of it. It’s now embarrassingly obvious that the ribs are extended only as a means to make more room in the lungs for air, to expand the lungs to their limit. Once I figured that out, I felt as if I’d been hit in the head with a coconut. It was a concept that was so obvious, yet somehow, it flew right over my head for many years. On the exhale, we are told to,Empty your lungs completely,” which actually translates into,Empty your lungs completely,” as in keep exhaling until there is absolutely no more air to exhale. In order to achieve complete emptiness, you have to literally squeeze your lungs. How do you squeeze your lungs? You push them empty by wringing out your lungs with your chest and abdominal muscles. If done in this way, Pranayama is a twoforone: it slows the breathing AND it strengthens the core.
  3. Work up to being able to maintain the breath throughout the 26 postures. All of the pauses/savasana between the postures exist as opportunities to relax and reset your body and to slow down your breath. It’s not time to fix your hairor to adjust your clothesor to straighten out your mat, or even to drink water. I realize that these issues (especially the “no water” concept) might sound a little over the top, but honestly, all those activities do just distract from the suckieness of the practice. Doing those things does not serve us, breathing and relaxing does. Stillness is 100% mind over matter. I successfully weaned myself from having water in the room by making sure to adequately hydrate prior to class and then choosing to drink less and less until I had the bottle next to mebut refused to drink. And the next class, I left the water in the cubbyhole. I start actively drinking water at least one-and-ahalf hours before class. I chug down three to four twenty-four-ounce bottles of room temperature water. When I do this, I don’t even feel a need to drink during class. Drinking is often done because it feels like a break from the suffering, but I’ve found that all of the required effort actually does the opposite: it intensifies the suffering because it takes away from relaxation time and gives the mind something to be distracted by. You may become focused on an impending water break instead of being present in the posture you are in. Plus, no matter which way you look at it, drinking requires holding the breath, and that is the absolute LAST thing you ever want to do. Be still. It’s hard at first, but trust and believe. You will grow to love it. Adjusting your clothes, mat, or hairand drinking water can wait.
  4. Speaking of, “Don’t EVER hold your breath.I’m going to break it down real simple for you: breathing brings oxygen from the air into your lungs. In the lungs, oxygen is carried to the arterial network, which then distributes it to the body’s organs and tissues. These organs include the muscles, the heart, the lungs, and the brain. Breath holding deprives these organs of the oxygen they need to function. Doing Bikram yoga (or any exercise for that matter) requires your organs and tissues to work way harder than they normally do. Therefore, it follows that holding your breath while the body is under stress gives these organs LESS oxygen at a time when they need MORE oxygen. Oxygen deprivation leads to an even higher heart rate, increased breath work, more muscle strain, exhaustion, and dizziness. You know how you hear people in the room make a deep exhale when the instructor says,Change”? That means they were holding their breath in the posture. Don’t be one of those people. Breath, dammit! If you lose your breath, it means you’ve gone farther into the posture than is healthy. Never sacrifice your breath for the form or depth of a pose. Going into each and every posture is a series of steps. Never go to step 2 until your breathing is steady in step 1.
  5. Deep breathing= deeper postures. In any yoga practice, exhales exist mainly to allow your body and mind to Only by relaxing can we achieve any depth in the posture. It’s not a matter of forcing your body into a posture. It’s about relaxing your body enough to receive the posture. It took me years to realize that. For me, the breakthrough happened in the third part of Half Moon Pose. I’d always tried to push my backbend. One day I stopped pushing and started progressively relaxing my lower back more and more with each exhale (yes, it is difficult to breath while in a backbend, but with practice, it is very doable.) Not too long after, I was able to see the back wall, and then the floor, and then my own mat. Back bends are now my favorite thing to do! I’ve been able to transfer this approach to every other backbend (and every other posture), so now I get excited right before Camel because it’s my favorite posture. Not even kidding.

I could go on and on about building discipline through other means like coming out of postures with control and intention, or maintaining eye gaze, but the bottom line is I encourage all yogis to give their egos a break and make your mantra “Breath first. Breath first. Breath first. Discovering that truth saved my life and gave me a brand new understanding of Bikram yoga. Suffering in the room beats suffering outside of the room. Can I get an Amen?

Categories: Breathing


There are 4 comments

  1. Kim D.

    I have been practicing Bikram for nearly five years and I am still learning something new every class. Thank you for sharing your journey and insights! Welcome to Long Beach. 🙂

  2. Christina

    Amen… Thank you for this. I am new to Bikram, I love it and hate it at the same time. Trying to not go into a full panic in each class. I just tell myself to Keep Breathing. Keep Breathing…. I appreciate you for writing this. I feel so much better can’t wait to continue.

Post Your Thoughts