Over the years, we have come up with what we call perfect postures. We consider postures perfect, when they follow these three rules:
Let's look at these criteria in more detail.
THE CORRECT MUSCLES HAVE TO ENGAGE
In many of the postures we practice, it is easy to get the wrong muscles involved. Standing Head to Knee (with the arms) is a perfect example. Standing Head to Knee should be a balancing forward bend of the spine. However, with the arms, it's almost inevitable that the arms engage to hold the leg up and pull the upper body closer to the leg. Also, the back often engages to prevent us from collapsing all the way forward. Both of these actions will not take us in the direction of the pose for the following reasons:
1) The arms do not bend the spine forward, that's the job of the rectus abdominis.
2) A forward bend of the spine requires abdominal engagement and back relaxation. If our back is engaging, this is the opposite of the pose.
This brings us to the first perfect pose, Standing Head to Knee with No Arms. While it is incredibly difficult, any attempt to balance on one leg, lift the other and round the spine will take us in the right direction because the correct muscles have to engage.
NO EXTREME RANGE OF MOTION IN THE BODY
The second rule for a perfect posture is no extreme range of motion. In some ways, postures with small ranges of motion are easy to find. On the other hand, yoga postures can easily incorporate extreme ranges of motion without us realizing it. This is something we have to be careful of.
Our next two perfect poses are Full Locust and Locust. In addition to the other criteria, they do not ask for any extreme range of motion.
WITHOUT THE STRENGTH TO DO THE POSTURE, NOTHING HAPPENS
The last rule that makes a posture perfect relates to what happens when we don't have the strength to execute the posture. In some postures, if we don't have the strength or control, we can get ourselves into a sticky situation. Examples of this could be a position that puts a lot of stress on a joint or a pose that lengthens a muscle too far. In a perfect posture, if you don't have the strength to do the posture, nothing happens! It is perfectly safe for this reason.
The final two perfect postures are Palmstand and Torso Lift. Anyone who has tried Palmstand for the first time will likely remember the feeling of "Nothing is happening!" While it is difficult to lift the hips and legs up, it's completely safe. Without the strength, we simply remain sitting. The same principle applies to Torso Lift. Without abdominal strength, nothing happens.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
Last month we wrote about the common shoulder injury Shoulder Impingement. The other common injury to the shoulder happens in the front, where the short head of the biceps muscle attaches to the shoulder blade, a biceps tendon strain. This injury is most common in Ashtanga Vinyasa and subsequent 'flowing' yoga styles that incorporate a lot of Sun Salutations and chaturangas. The shoulder can't do this action very well, and the biceps become strained before too long.
To understand this injury, we have to talk about shoulder mechanics and the muscles that move the arm.
PECTORALIS MAJOR & ADDUCTION
One of the biggest and most powerful muscles of the shoulder is the pectoralis major, commonly known as the 'pecs' or just the 'chest muscle', pictured to the left. It connects the arm (humerus) directly to the middle of the chest. Its main function is to pull the arm toward the chest in an action called adduction.
Try it: hold your arm out to the side (as pictured below, labeled adduction), then bring your arm toward the center, so you end up with your arm pointing forward. As you do this, you will feel your 'pec' engage. When you apply this motion to something like a pushup, the arms need to be away from the body, so the pushup motion will be pulling the arm inward toward the chest. Simply put, this means keeping your elbows away from the body. This is the safest way to do any pushup motion.
BICEPS & FLEXION
In contrast, if we start with our arms down by the sides and lift them up until they point forward, this is called flexion (pictured above, labeled flexion). When we lift the arm like this, the pec doesn't get activated much, so the work is done by much smaller muscles like the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder cap) and the biceps. The biceps cross two joints; they bend the elbow and also flex the shoulder. But they don't have the power to move the body's entire weight.
When we do pushups or chaturangas with the elbows close to the sides of the body, we are essentially moving the shoulder in flexion. This is not a powerful nor particularly healthy way to move so much weight. When we do this repeatedly, the bicep tendon (usually the short head at the attachment with the coracoid process of the shoulder blade) will often be damaged. This manifests as pain or soreness in the front of the shoulder.
There is a common belief that keeping the elbows close to the body uses the triceps more than if the elbows were wider. This is not true for the simple reason that the triceps straighten the elbow, and the elbow is doing a similar action in both versions. The big impact is on the shoulder and what muscle group you use when doing a pushup or chaturanga motion.
There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping the elbows close to the body and flexing the shoulder. The problems arise when we do this with our entire body weight and do it repetitively. This is how injury usually happens. Consider making the elbows wider, which will strengthen the huge pectoralis major muscle as well as be safer for the smaller muscles of the shoulder.
Happy, healthy practicing!
We're about halfway through the Ghosh 2020 challenge! Each day we've been posting a concept related to the physical practice. Occasionally, we've asked you to respond to questions about how these postures function in the body. This challenge is all about being clear about the goals of the practice and how they're accomplished. With this in mind, we'd like to address a common misconception about breathing.
When we breathe in the chest (like in Standing Deep Breathing), the abdominal muscles are relaxed.
This seems to confuse a lot of people who are used to hearing "suck the stomach in" or something like it in this exercise. When we inhale into the chest, we use the intercostal muscles between the ribs and not the abdomen. (More on that here.) The abdomen does appear to come in, but this is directly a result of the chest lifting. There is no action in the abdominal muscles on the inhale.
Muscles only have the ability to pull. They cannot push.
When a muscle engages, it pulls its two attachment points closer together. So, no action in the abdomen can push the ribs up. (In fact, engaging the rectus abdominis will keep us from affectively breathing in the chest, because it will pull our ribs down.)
In chest breathing, we have a second set of intercostal muscles that exhale. However, it is true that the transverse abdominis can help us exhale, especially if we are exhaling forcefully.
When you practice chest breathing, relax your abdomen. On the inhale, any muscular effort in the abdomen will hinder you.
Samadhi is an important concept in yoga. It is the highest of the 8 'limbs' in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the highest of the 6 'limbs' of the Maitri Upanishad. Even with such a distinguished position as the culmination of yogic practice, it is a difficult concept to understand. Often samadhi is described as 'absorption', 'meditation', or 'contemplation'. I think it is much clearer to think of it as 'transparency of mind'.
One of difficulties with samadhi is the same as will arise with any other word. Most words have multiple meanings, and it can be a challenge to pinpoint the correct one. Samadhi is often used in a more general sense meaning 'concentration'. So we often see it used in contemplative, yogic and spiritual texts without a super technical purpose. Often it just means concentration.
But in yoga texts around 0-500 CE, samadhi took on a more specific, technical meaning. It was placed atop of the pyramid of meditative practice, above the older, better-known dhyana, which was until then a more common term for meditation.
THE COLOR OF THE MIND
To understand the value of samadhi, first we must understand the nature of the mind. As a thinking and perceiving tool, the mind is always interpreting what it sees and combining it with what it has experienced in the past. This interaction of the present with our memory is what gives us our 'reality'. But it is dependent on our past experience and the beliefs it has created. So we are not actually experiencing the world as it truly is but interpreting it through the lens of our own history.
The mind is like stained glass. We can see the world on the other side, but it is distorted and colored by our own experience, history and memory. The practice of yoga is largely committed to reducing the 'color' of the mind, working toward removing the distortions of our perception and the impact of the mind's own tendencies on our interaction with the world.
A TRANSPARENT JEWEL
Samadhi is the ultimate expression of mental transparency, where the mind no longer interprets the world through a 'colored' filter. As it says in the Yoga Sutras, "the mind becomes just like a transparent jewel, taking the form of whatever object is placed before it" (YS 1.41). This means that there is no distortion whatsoever caused by the mind, and we can experience each object exactly as it is without our own interpretation. Similarly, samadhi is described later in the sutras as the state when "the mind is devoid of its own reflective nature" (3.3).
This is a difficult state to achieve, as the tendency of the mind is mostly toward interpretation. Meditative practices are largely aimed at solving this problem by encouraging a 'one-pointed' mind. This reduces the tendency of the mind to think, interpret and color our perceptions. The culmination, samadhi, is when we cease to interpret the world, make the mind transparent, and experience the world as it is.
A while back, Calcutta Yoga by Jerome Armstrong was available on this site. The limited run sold out quickly and as it did, the book was picked up by Pan MacMillan Publishing. The wait for the new and improved version is over! Calcutta Yoga comes out soon and you can order it here.
Calcutta Yoga is the story of Buddha Bose, Bishnu Ghosh, Yogananda. Heavily researched, the book chronicles yoga in Calcutta in the early 1900s and follows it as it spreads beyond Bengal and into the world.
Where one story bled into the next, Jerome followed through leaving no stone unturned. This book is the culmination of years of effort and a worldwide quest to get to the bottom of the history of Calcutta Yoga.
For now, the book will be out as a hardcover in India, and available as an ebook worldwide.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
Two common injuries in yoga happen in the shoulder. One is in the front of the shoulder---the biceps tendon---which we will address next time. The other is in the top of the shoulder, called impingement. It happens when the arm lifts up high; the arm bone can bump against the edge of the shoulder blade, called the acromion, and damage the tendon there.
HOW THIS CAN HAPPEN
In yoga, this happens most often when we force the arms overhead. Think of any time you link your hands together and then try to straighten your arms using force. As pictured below, it happens in Half Moon Backbend, Half Moon Sidebend, Balancing Stick and Half Tortoise, among others. (It also happens in Downward Facing Dog.) When we force our arms to straighten overhead, we usually use the triceps, a muscle mainly of the elbow, to compel movement in the shoulder. This is where we get into trouble and impingement can happen. You will feel a 'pinching' sensation in the top and outside of your shoulder. This is the bones bumping into each other, damaging the soft tissue.
If the shoulders become injured this way, they will be painful whenever lifting the arms sideways, and the breathing exercise pictured at the top will cause pain.
HOW TO HELP
The simplest and most effective way to avoid this injury is to not link your hands together. Just place them side by side without interlacing the fingers. Interlacing the fingers and forcing the arms straight overhead is the easiest way to create the injury.
Or don't lift your arms overhead (pictured below left). Most postures can be done quite effectively without the arms overhead. All of the positions pictured above don't require the arms to get the primary benefit.
Alternatively, you can lift your arms forward and up (pictured below) instead of out to the side. This will help the shoulder blades move into the proper position and keep the shoulders healthy.
In the breathing exercise, pictured at the top, you can keep your elbows lower, not lifting them higher than the shoulders. This will prevent further irritation of this area.
To build strength in the area, postures like Full Locust will help (pictured below right). By pulling the shoulders back and together, we build strength in the back of the shoulder to help stabilize and balance the joint.
The moral of the story is that we should be aware and careful when lifting the arms overhead, especially if we are gripping the hands together and straightening with force. If there is a 'pinching' sensation in the top of the shoulder, back off immediately. There is nothing there to 'stretch', and it is likely that we are impinging our supraspinatus tendon. Try adjusting your approach to the posture and using your shoulders a little differently.
Happy, healthy practicing.
As teachers, we are in service of the transmission of knowledge. Our goal is to acquire knowledge in order to pass it on to our students. When our students gain that knowledge and can hold it on their own, we have succeeded.
As we go through this process of acquiring knowledge and passing it on, we must remember that knowledge itself is not ours. Once we learn something, we do not own it. It is not ours to hold onto at the expense of others.
We are in service of knowledge. Knowledge is not in service of us.
Our ego doesn't always like the process of teaching. The ego easily jumps in and says, "Wait! I'm the teacher, I'm in charge. This is my class, my system, my teachings." While this might not be conscious or obvious, we might notice it as twinges of self doubt, or fear that we will become less valuable if our students advance too far.
This becomes an inner battle for teachers, one that needs to be handled with great care. We must remember our very job is to give to our students. When our students understand what we've taught them and hold that same knowledge, we must celebrate this. This is what it means to teach.
It can be difficult to know what is real in this world. The methods of yoga, spirituality and science have developed to explore this question. Sometimes they come to the same answers, but sometimes they contradict.
As yoga teachers, we are often confronted with the problems of: 'Why do we do these things?' and 'What is right?' We usually look in three places to find answers: tradition, science and personal experience.
We at Ghosh Yoga are fascinated with tradition, and we have researched it, studied it, lectured on it and challenged it. We have written about the relationship of oldness and tradition, the Spirit of Tradition, and the sometimes misleading value of tradition.
With regards to these questions---what is real? and what is worth learning?---tradition plays an important role in yoga. Many of us are drawn to yoga because of its ancientness, sacredness and gravity. And the idea of lineage, teaching in the same way as you were taught, is a time-worn Indian method that has come to the West with yoga. At its best, a lineage links modern students with ancient teachers and sages.
We must take these things seriously. What did our teachers think and what did they teach?If we look in older texts, what was being taught hundreds or thousands of years ago? Most importantly, how do these apply to modernity? Can we extrapolate our own situations, thoughts and perspectives from ancient teachings?
In the past few centuries, scientific methods have developed that are centered around the reliability and repeatability outcomes. The sciences have improved our understanding of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and neurology among other things. We can apply this knowledge to the body and mind in yoga practice. But it can sometimes come into conflict with traditional understanding.
For example, humans did not know the intricacies of bodily anatomy until the 15th century CE. This is clearly depicted in art from earlier, where the body is only really understood by looking from the outside. Take this one step further inward, to the functioning of breathing, energy or the nervous system. These things have come into focus even more recently in human history.
Therefore, when we look to 'tradition' for physical, anatomical or physiological methods, we must take great care. How does the ancient understanding line up with modern understanding? If there is a discrepancy, is it clear where, why or when that may have occurred? And which do we trust?
(For the past few decades, increasing numbers of scientific studies are being done on the practices of yoga. Check out Pure Action.)
It may seem obvious to say, but all of these practices and traditions of yoga are intended to be put to use by actual living humans, like us. They only come to life when they are studied and executed. Those experiences we have and the inner knowledge we gain are hugely valuable, and one might argue that they are the central purpose of it all.
On the other hand, the root of all the spiritual traditions is that our ordinary knowledge and perception are lacking and misleading. We must look deeper and strive to understand what is difficult and hidden. So, partly, our experience is the most important element, but it can also be the most misleading if we are not careful.
TAKING THE THREE TOGETHER
When assessing the methods and goals of yoga, we constantly weigh the contributions of these three elements: tradition, science and personal experience. There are some instances when all three align. This is the case with Alternate Nostril breathing, a practice described in the ancient texts, explained clearly with the modern scientific understanding of the nervous system, and reinforced by our own experience. We are quite confident in the function of this practice.
Other practices are more difficult to justify. Inversions like Headstand and Shoulderstand were originally designed to prevent the falling of bindu from the head into the abdomen. Since that belief has fallen by the wayside, more modern practitioners try to ground the practices in physiological things like blood pressure or thyroid stimulation, which are questionable and unproven to the best of our knowledge.
Yogic practices may be anywhere on this scale, swinging from 'traditional' to 'modern', and scientifically proven to completely debunked. Not to mention the experiences we have when we try these things for ourselves. We only suggest that you are considered and thoughtful when practicing yoga.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
The second most common injury we see in the yoga world is of the hip. The damage happens when the hip bends (flexes) significantly. The thigh bone can bump against the bone of the pelvis and hip socket, crushing the cartilage there. This is called hip impingement.
The injury generally happens in three progressive stages that may take months or years to develop. In the first stage, there is a slight or moderate pinching sensation as we pull the leg into the chest or rest the body onto the leg with gravity. This pinch is not the result of muscular engagement or tissue stretching, but of bone resting on bone and squishing the cartilage between. (There is a somewhat common instruction to 'feel a pinching sensation in the hip' in some postures. We recommend against this, for obvious reasons.)
If we continue to damage the cartilage beyond the second stage, in the third stage it can actually tear and pull away from the hip socket. This is called a labral tear, because the cartilage ring around the hip socket is the labrum. This injury can be quite painful, making it excruciating to do something as simple as walk. Like in the second stage, not only will the hip joint itself hurt, but the muscles of the thigh will struggle to function properly.
Common postures that are in danger of causing this injury are those that involve deep hip flexion, which is bending of the hip joint. These include Wind Removing (pictured above), Bikram Triangle, Standing Bow, Half Tortoise, Separate Arms Balancing Stick and Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana). Look at the position of the hip in all these postures. Notice that the deep flexion can cause the thigh bone to bump into the pelvis.
How can we avoid, prevent or heal this injury? As with most things, prevention is the most effective method, as it will keep the body healthier and pain-free. To prevent this injury, pay close attention in any of these postures where your hip is deeply flexed. If you feel a pinching or pressure in the top/front of your hip, back off a bit. It can be challenging to separate this sensation from a stretching or engaged muscle, but the differentiation is quite clear once you notice it.
Anytime we use the arms to pull the leg deeper toward the pelvis, use great care! This is taking the hip joint past its normal range of motion, and is a common way to injure the hip. In most (perhaps all) situations, pulling will increase the risk of injury.
Healing damaged hip cartilage is difficult. If you are only in Stage 1 or Stage 2, backing off of the postures will likely allow the body to heal. You will need to be conservative with the hip for awhile, at least six weeks. If you have a torn labrum, the conversation gets more complicated, as most will recommend surgical repair. The cartilage doesn't have a great blood supply, so it has trouble healing on its own. There are some stories of non-surgical success, but they are few and far-between.
For us, the moral of the story is to be careful and gentle. Most people practice yoga to improve their health, and injury is the exact opposite of that.
Today we honor the life of Yogacharya Mukul Dutta. Though our time with him was short, we are deeply grateful for the knowledge he shared with us.
Mukul was a student of Bishnu Ghosh and a lifelong teacher. He was recently recognized in Kolkata as the Times of India Yoga Guru 2019.
He was responsible for presenting the book Yoga Cure by Bishnu Ghosh back to the Ghosh family. This inevitably lead to the recent public release.
He was instrumental in helping Jerome Armstrong with research for Calcutta Yoga and had recently been helping with the Women of Yoga project.
Mukul, thank you for the enthusiasm and dedication you brought to yoga, your community and your life!
Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Origins of Standing Bow
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- Through Bishnu's Eyes
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice