Story Jason Browne | Photographs Kelly Tippett
While lying on your back, breathe deeply, expanding from your diaphragm. Imagine breathing in tiny plus-signs as you take a big pull of healthy atmosphere and imagine exhaling nasty toxins as a trail of minus-signs leaving your body. Press your lower back against the floor as you elongate your spine. Feel your head stretch away from your sternum. Remember to focus on your breathing. Transition to child’s pose and feel your spine stretching. Try not to giggle as the instructor leads you into downward dog. Look up at the instructor to see if you’re doing it right. But keep your back straight. Peek at the other people in the class to see if they’re struggling, too. Mind your breathing. Step forward with your right foot and reach up toward the ceiling, stretching your side body. Work at a pace that’s comfortable to you. Maintain your posture. Don’t forget to breathe.
Yoga may be the path to serenity, but it’s damn sure not a quick trip. Ask anyone who has practiced the ancient art in an effort to balance their body and soul, and they’ll tell you it’s not something that can be attained in one class. That includes Bliss Yoga owner and instructor Jill Williams. Williams wants to help you achieve nirvana, but first let’s align our expectations.
THE BREATH PENALTY
Williams says yoga can be a healthy experience for almost anybody. It can strengthen and relax your muscles and your mind at the same time, regardless of your physical condition. It’s designed to help you forget about the frustrations of your life. Unfortunately, it might introduce some new ones.
“It maybe took me a year to learn how to breathe,” said Williams of her initial foray into yoga.
A year? To learn how to breathe! The most basic principle of yoga. The foundation on which all yogic exercise is built. All the stretches, the funny-sounding poses, the metaphysical philosophy — they all start with breathing.
“If yoga teaches you one thing it should be to use your whole breath. Normally, people use about 30 percent of their lung capacity. Often it’s hard just to fully inflate your lungs,” explains Williams.
She warns against over-thinking the “breathing vs. stretching” conundrum experienced by all baby yogis. “Yoga is about relaxing,” she says. She also says, “Yoga without the breath is just calisthenics for old people.”
Kate Spencer, a student of Williams’ currently training to become an assistant instructor, describes her breathing method like this: “You start squeezing the back of your throat as if you’re about to whisper, and you’re breathing through your nose while squeezing your throat. You imagine filling your body like a glass, filling from the bottom up. Then when you breathe out it’s like a glass pouring, spilling out the toxins.”
Williams takes it a step further, using audible breaths which mimic the sound of surf on a beach. This repetitious, almost chant-like, breathing combined with the guided imagery functions as a sort of self-hypnosis which leads to the elusive relaxation for which yoga is famous.
And while tranquility without chemical assistance is a neat trick by itself, that’s not why Williams got into yoga.
ONENESS WITH THE UNIVERSE OR LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF?
Back in 2004, the 45-year-old mother of two was 38 and living in Tampa, Fla., with her Air Force husband, Cameron. She kept herself in shape by jogging but wasn’t what you would call a health and wellness guru.
Prior to leaving Florida for California, Williams was involved in a serious car accident. Nobody died, but the accident wrecked her lower back. She tried the usual avenues for relief: therapy, cortisone shots, etc., but nothing solved the problem.
Long story short, someone suggested yoga.
“I said ‘That’s for lazy people.’ I had no idea it was so vigorous and strengthening,” said Williams.
Fast forward seven years and Williams is an instructor with her own school. Bliss Yoga has been open at 127 Fifth Street North in Columbus for just more than a year.
She didn’t do it for the hippie philosophies, although they tend to come with the territory if you do yoga long enough. Much of the original Sanskrit terminology remains intact to describe the process and the goals.
And she didn’t do it to dabble in Eastern religion. But she does believe the meditative exercises can help people of any faith grow closer to God.
She did it to make her back stop hurting. And it worked so well she felt compelled to share it with the world.
THE INNER CALM
Williams is well aware of the challenges inherent in yoga. That’s one of its virtues. It can promote circulation in a 60-year-old diabetic or it can work a young Air Force stud hard enough to melt the snot in his sinuses.
Thus, Williams offers a variety of classes — at $12 per 90-minute session, or less with a package deal — to meet everyone at their level. She reminds the beginners to breathe as often as she needs to while, in the same breath, offering relaxing encouragement. Shut out the familiar stress and complications. Don’t worry whether or not the person next to you is stretching farther or has better balance. Yoga is about focusing on yourself, and all you have to do is breathe.