Japanese Ham Sandwiches, Mama Give Me Money, 80/20 Breathing, oh my! – Demystifying the Bikram Yoga Class

You head into you first Bikram Yoga Class and the first thing you think of is, “What is with the heat? Is that going to be on full blast the whole time?” And I know, for most first timers to the hot room, that is the only thing they are thinking about. It is hot, Hot, HOT and the class seems long, looong, loooooonng. You would like to unzip your skin and please see the clock that says you’ve only been in this room for thirty-minutes and have another sixty to go. But all of a sudden, somewhere within week two of regularly showing up at the studio, the heat isn’t such a big deal. Don’t get me wrong, the heat is always challenging, but now you are finding it workable.

And this is when you start to actually hear the words the teachers are saying. Before you were copying the movements of the practitioners around you. They put their arms over your head and so did you. But now you are starting to listen and this is when the practice becomes very cool. No not a cool breeze drifting through the room to cool you off, but cool as in intriguing. With each class, you are starting to hear more and more. This is when the questions begin. There are certain phrases and words repeated over and over at each class that have you wondering what the heck the teacher is talking about. Where did this stuff come from and why does each class reiterate the same things on an endless loop?

So, I thought I’d do my best to clear up some of these things up for you. Sometimes knowing what these phrases mean can affect your practice and other times, these phrases are just trying to make you smile and not take life, and your yoga, so seriously.


Japanese Ham Sandwich – Everyone wonders what this is at first, especially in the States where a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich. Why is it special if it’s a Japanese Ham Sandwich? Well, as you hear in class, there are no gaps, light or air anywhere. A Japanese Ham Sandwich is usually on white bread with a thin layer of ham and some mayo or mustard on the inside. It is smushed together. There is no lettuce, tomato, or onions that would create a gap.


(Photo credit:  www.bikramyogavancouver.com)

This phrase is used in The Dialogue for Pada-Hasthasana, or Hands to Feet Pose towards the beginning of class. What the teacher is looking for is that you make sure you are getting the front side compression found in this posture helping you to get your coccyx in the right place for this particular forward stretch. You have to get contact with your stomach against the thighs, your chest on your knees, and your face on the legs below the knees to achieve this. And once you have it, you need to continue working to maintain this contact as you then work to push the knees back and lock the knees.

Pulling is the object of stretching – In your yoga practice you must use what you have, to create what you don’t. So, in the forward stretches we are using what strength you have in the arms to create further flexibility in the lower spine and hamstrings. It starts with the good grip, whether it be Hands to Feet Pose, Separate Leg Stretching, Wind Removing, or Final Stretching, you have to engage the arms and pull, to get these muscles to stretch. When you correctly and safely pull, with the right grip, you will increase the stretch and, therefore, change your range of flexibility and motion.

Mama Give Me Money – I have searched high and low to come up with an explanation for this little tidbit stated during the set up for Standing Bow Pulling Pose, but have come up with nothing. It is used to help you achieve the good grip in order for you to get the shoulder to open in the posture. That being said, I once heard someone say it was also a way of asking the gods for good fortune and long life. I’m not sure about that one, but hey, it’s a cute idea. What it does do, is make you smile, and particularly at this point class. This is the time in class where everyone gets a little too intense. The heart rate is rising, you are dripping buckets of sweat, and now you must find your grace and balance. Keep it light and don’t get frustrated with yourself on this one. Remember to smile and let it go if you fall out, but remember to always jump right back in time and again until the posture is over.

Natural Human Traction – This is when you want to think of pulling the spine in opposite directions to lengthen and find further space between each vertebra. In this way, you are not complacent in postures such as Balancing Stick and Half Tortoise, but working for something more.

80/20 Breathing – Most teachers explain this one if they say it in class, as they know you probably don’t know what this term means. You want to fill your lungs to 100% capacity at the beginning of a posture and then at the height of the posture, where you are going to your deepest, only take in small sips of air, letting twenty percent of the air come in and out as you maintain the 80% in the lungs that you found in the setup.

110% – How can you give more than 100%? Is it even possible? If we’re going to get philosophical about it, no it’s not. But it’s in the trying of it that we reach new limits. Maybe you were giving about ninety percent of yourself over to a posture, but then you hear the teacher encourage to reach for 110% you might find all of the, “Wow, I can do this,” inside of you instead of the, “Ugh, I can’t do this,” and reach your 100% potential.

Are you yelling at me? – Have you ever had a teacher talk so loud and emphatically you can swear they are yelling at you through the entire class? The thing is we can get pretty excited about what you are achieving or what you are starting to reach for. When this happens, I know I should take the microphone off as I’m already naturally loud, but please know that if a teacher is calling your name to get you to go further, or to make an adjustment ,we are doing it from a place of peace and love. There is nothing better than watching students discover their potential. That’s why we wanted to take the podium. Not for ourselves, but for you.

Come back as quick as you can for the next class. When I first started taking class back in 2005 I thought this sounded like such a scam. “Of course, you want me to come back to class as quickly as you can so that you can make more money,” was the first thought that popped into my head when I heard this, lying soaked and red faced on the floor. But as I continued to heed this advice, the room and this practice became much easier. It’s the long breaks in between classes, not coming back for two weeks or a month, that makes it feel like the first time every time. Try and commit to getting to the studio a minimum of two to three times a week. I guarantee you will start to see improvement and then, you will want to come as often as possible and get your yoga fix.

I hope this helped, or at least cleared a few things up for you. Please know your instructors want you to love this practice. They are passionate about leading you through class and assisting you to achieve the life of your dreams. Don’t hesitate to ask questions before or after class if you don’t understand something. A ton of information is being passed onto you within the ninety-minutes. You do not need to absorb it all at once. As you continue your practice it will all come together little by little. Be patient and have fun – in the hot room and out.

Namaste yogis!


Love the blog? You will love the book! Follow my yoga journey and the accomplishments of five of my students, as well as, recount some of the most popular blog posts in my first book: Views from the Podium: The Life & Times of a Hot Yogi. 

5 thoughts on “Japanese Ham Sandwiches, Mama Give Me Money, 80/20 Breathing, oh my! – Demystifying the Bikram Yoga Class

  1. Thanks for this! My mind has wondered… AND I think what is actually meant is that STRETCHING is the object of pulling, right? It doesn’t make sense that pulling is the object of stretching. And the money one, I heard a teacher say put your hand out like someone is putting money in it (to encourage not twisting the hand, I think). Thanks, as always for your insights.

      • Good article! FYI though, as a 7 year Bikram Student I personally do not appreciate loud, overly excited teachers. It is actually a common complaint about Bikram within the yoga community that many of the teachers should be teaching Jazzercise, or some other high intensity workout, not meditation. Just thought I would tell you, because as a Bikram Advocate I get lots of other yogis complaining about the heat + overly intense teachers, and I hate that I can’t disagree about the latter.

        • Every teacher has a different style. Some are more energetic while others are more meditative. Both are good. We are an eclectic bunch, but at the heart of every Bikram teacher is a passion for the yoga, the wish to share that passion and wanting the best for their students. I’m glad you enjoyed the article – thanks for reading!

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