“Take a deep breath in... and exhale it out. Begin utilizing your ujjayi breath…”
"Uh, ujjayi what?" I was in my very first yoga class and couldn't help but think: This is ridiculous. Did this yoga instructor just randomly make up a fancy-sounding word to describe the simple concept of breathing? *eye roll* Not only was I sweating profusely, suddenly swimming in a puddle of perspiration on my mat, but I also felt like I was stuck in an eleventh-grade foreign language class. Still trying to wrap my head around ujjayi-this and trikonasana-that, I came to the defeated conclusion that this was not my jam. I just had to make it through this one class without drowning in my own bodily fluids and pretend to understand the gibberish meant to guide the wacky practice.
I didn't get into yoga because I was “broken” or going through a breakup or even seeking spiritual growth. I simply wanted a supplement to my already-involved training regimen. I perceived yoga to be physically challenging yet a more gentle workout for rest days... and that's about it.
I spent the first two years focusing on my physical practice. I didn’t have any interest in “feeling” or being compassionate, loving, and kind to myself. My main objective was to get a recovery workout in on the days I didn’t have functional strength training, and to keep my body supple. Every time an instructor would preach about vulnerability and the idea that “you can only love others as much as you love yourself,” I would cringe. Rather than embrace all of the tools that would contribute to my growth and emotional freedom, I resisted them and became increasingly frustrated with what I considered to be absolute bulls#*t. TBH, I just couldn’t comprehend why every single instructor felt the need to create an emotional upheaval when I was just there to get in a good workout.
Despite my journey not following the common trend of turning to yoga post breakup, two years into my practice, I found myself going through the worst breakup of my life: my divorce.
All of a sudden, the emotional wall I built came crumbling down. I felt like everything the instructor was saying resonated with what I was experiencing in my personal life. The emotions came on full force, and my mat was soaked with a mixture of sweat and tears after every practice. I felt a loss of control and power I didn't experience in my other workouts, as I was forced to deal with the hurt, sadness, anger, and regret. My formerly-jaded self might have scoffed, but this new, vulnerable version of me felt a shift.
The exact moment it happened was in half-pigeon after a grueling practice. I heard the instructor say, “Your access to power is through your breath. Follow it, feel it, hear it, be with it.”
As much as I look forward to the hip-opening poses, those are also the ones that are most sensational and regarded as the area in our body where we hold on to our emotions. With the discomfort intensifying, I decided to take the advice that changed everything for me: I started to breathe. I counted my breath. I visualized my breath. I listened to my breath. I just breathed.
It wasn’t that my breath magically made everything better—not even close—but what it did do was make the discomfort manageable.
It wasn’t that my breath magically made everything better—not even close—but what it did do was make the discomfort manageable. It allowed me to stay with the sensations, recognizing that I was in full control of how I chose to respond. In that moment, my breath—this simple, basic thing that we all have access to—became my most useful and powerful tool. Breathing reminded me that all emotions, good and bad, are temporary.
Learning to breathe through discomfort, be it physical or emotional, allowed me to create space for healing and vulnerability. It made me responsive rather than reactive, and it gave me the ability to recognize that I always have a choice. As the saying goes, the only way out is through. Through yoga, I realized I can either choose to avoid uncomfortable sensation and suffer, or I can breathe my way through it, trusting that it will pass in due time.
When I think back to that very first yoga class, I was not only completely confused by ujjayi breathing, but I was also annoyed by the loud, obnoxious sound. It's kind of funny now that what I once resisted is now my sacred tool of survival. It grounds me, soothes me, nurtures me, and allows me to create space to feel and to let go. It's helped me find myself and is the most powerful component of my yoga practice. It reminds me not to be so quick to judge new experiences, new people, even myself. It reminds me that there is no challenge or difficulty that you cannot overcome—one breath at a time.
Parinaz Samimi has since graduated from student status and is now a certified yoga instructor in Salt Lake City. Follow her journey on Instagram.