History is never done being written. That much is clear as we discover new characters, beliefs and links that were unknown in years past. Our knowledge is always being updated and the story of history is always changing.
It is shocking how much is unknown about our past. Where does our knowledge come from? Where did our teachers learn? When and why did practices begin and evolve? We are passionate about finding the answers to these questions, which is why we have published and made available seven volumes in the past four years.
MUSCLE CONTROL by BISHNU CHARAN GHOSH
Originally published in 1930 as part of Muscle Control and Barbell Exercise, this is the first book by BC Ghosh. It doesn't deal with yogic values or practices, but its emphasis on muscular development and technique has trickled down through the decades into modern yoga practice. It has been available around the web before as a sort of bootleg, but the Ghosh family recently approved it for sale. Its proceeds go to Ghosh's Yoga College in Kolkata.
84 YOGA ASANAS by BUDDHA BOSE
The manuscript of this volume was created in 1938, and a small section of 24 postures was published in 1939 as "Key To the Kingdom of Health Through Yoga, Volume 1." The rest was never published, lost to history through a fascinating series of events including a World War, an estate sale and an art exhibition. It was discovered by Jerome Armstrong in 2015 and published, shining a bright and powerful light into the yoga practices of the 1930s.
YOGA CURE by BISHNU CHARAN GHOSH
This is the only surviving yoga text we have from BC Ghosh. It is a small pamphlet that he wrote in 1961 in Bengali and English containing 32 postures and instructions. The photos are of his daughter Karuna. The pamphlet was recently discovered by a student (thanks Mukul!) of Ghosh, and the family approved it for sale. Proceeds go to Ghosh's Yoga College in Kolkata.
84 YOGA ASANAS by Dr. GOURI SHANKAR MUKERJI
Based on an out-of-print German volume and unpublished Bengali manuscripts, this work from the 1960s illuminates a fully-realized yoga system. Mukerji was a prominent student of Ghosh as well as a medical doctor, so this text includes medical insight as well as yogic understanding. It was published with the blessing of Mukerji's nephew (thanks Rupen!). Proceeds go to Mukerji's school and gym in Kolkata.
YOGA PANACEA by Dr. PS DAS
This book is the most modern of the yoga texts from this lineage, published in 2004 by Dr. Das, who is still teaching and prescribing in Kolkata. It is difficult to find, even in India. It has been available in the US at times because Das came to teach at Bikram Choudhury's trainings. So some westerners have this book, but we are happy to make it available whenever we can get copies from Kolkata.
CALCUTTA YOGA by JEROME ARMSTRONG
The first history of this lineage, Calcutta Yoga covers the lives of Bishnu Ghosh, Buddha Bose and Paramhansa Yogananda. It was just published last year (2018), and has recently been picked up for publication in India. A necessary volume for anyone with interest in this lineage or modern yoga history in general.
SHARIRAM ADHYAM by LABANYA PALIT
This is the latest discovery in the research of this lineage. Written in 1955 by Palit, a knowledgable student of Ghosh (and a woman, finally!), the book is comprehensive with an introduction by BC Ghosh himself. It is written in Bengali, and we are in the process of translating it for publication in English. Very little has been known about the Ghosh lineage in the 50s, so this book will fill an important gap in our knowledge.
Every new discovery and project surprises us. Of course we never know what we will stumble upon amid the great stacks of history. We are committed to uncovering the knowledge both inside and outside of this lineage.
Greetings from Kolkata!
I am nearly done with the first research trip exploring the forgotten women of yoga. It has been incredibly fruitful and already there is so much to piece together.
We have discovered a complete work by Labanya Palit from 1955! She was a student of Bishnu Charan Ghosh and we were able to find a copy of her book in the National Library. In the 60 years it has been here, it has never been checked out before! Her time period, from about 1940-1960, has been somewhat of a mystery to us. This book by Labanya Palit fills an important gap in our knowledge and our history.
For a while now, we've been teaching Feet Exercises at our workshops and seminars. They have quickly become a requested part of our teaching routine. They seem simple at first, but quickly get complicated and point out significant areas for improvement!
It's easy to disregard the feet, but healthy feet affect so many other parts of our practice. We need strong feet to balance. The health of our feet even changes the way we use our knees, hips and spine.
Another big benefit of working with the feet is in the brain. Our feet are the farthest body part from our brain, and often the first that we lose contact with. While some of these positions are tricky, if we work on them we can improve our brains' connection with our feet.
Our feet are controlled by many different muscles. Like any muscle in the body, they can get weak. Since we often rely on shoes to "support" our feet, the muscles weaken to an even greater degree. These exercises will strengthen muscles around your ankles and bottoms of the feet. This will make your balance better and help if you have any foot pain.
It's very normal to cramp in the bottom of your feet while you do these exercises. While this is uncomfortable, it is very beneficial. Cramping in this case means that the muscles are waking up and attempting to contract more than they can at that moment.
While these might seem challenging at first, they will get better! Practice these exercises on a regular basis and watch your balance improve!
"Suck your stomach in!" goes a common instruction in yoga class. This cue is present in a lot of different lineages and styles, and goes to the heart of an important conversation in the yoga world: What are we teaching?
Let's explore the meaning of this instruction, beginning with the elements involved. Namely, the "stomach" and "sucking in."
What is the stomach?
It is an organ in our digestive tract. It is high in the abdomen, just below the ribs and diaphragm. It is the first place our food goes after we chew and swallow it.
How do we suck the stomach in?
We don't. We can't. The stomach itself has muscles that help us in digesting and passing food through our system. But they are involuntary muscles that we can't consciously control. This instruction, "Suck the stomach in," refers to the stomach in a much more general and imprecise way, where "stomach" actually means "abdomen."
The muscle that pulls the abdomen in is called the transverse abdominis. It wraps around the belly like a corset, helping us breathe and stabilizing the spine when needed. If you are wondering what if feels like, exhale your breath forcefully and feel the sides of your abdomen. They will be tight and contracted. This is your transverse abdominis.
What are we actually teaching?
That brings us back to the instruction, "Suck your stomach in." If we take the instruction at its word, it is impossible. The stomach's position cannot be changed consciously nor can its muscles be contracted consciously.
The only way that this instruction makes sense is if we interpret "stomach" to mean "abdomen" and proceed to contract an abdominal muscle that "sucks in."
Also, if our students take us at our word (which I hope they do), they are learning that the stomach is something that can be "sucked in," which it is not. This is worrying, essentially teaching an inaccurate and incorrect concept to unknowing students.
The easiest of fixes
This instruction can be modified ever so slightly to become an effective cue. "Pull your abdomen in" or "pull your belly in" are both anatomically sound and they accomplish the desired result: contraction of the transverse abdominis. They remove the danger of propagating false information to our students and encourage them to learn the correct way.
With last year's publication of Calcutta Yoga by Jerome Armstrong, new light was shone on the history and progression of yoga and performance at Ghosh's College in Kolkata. We know so much more about men like Buddha Bose and Gouri Shankar Mukerji, and their contributions to the physical movements of Bengal throughout the 1900s. What is still missing, as is often the case with history, are the stories of the women.
Were there women practitioners? Yes!
Have they mostly been forgotten? Yes!
Is this about to change? Yes!
I am headed to India to start the first leg of formal research into several of the female practitioners in Bengal. Working with me is a talented writer and researcher Chandrima Pal, who lives in Kolkata and has already uncovered information about these forgotten women and the context of their lives.
As with any research project, we don't know where this will end up. Our goal is to publish a book about these women and boldly go where the stories take us. Stay tuned next week, especially on Instagram for updates about our findings. And stay tuned on this blog for longer form updates. As Chandrima said recently, "Wish us lots of luck and loads of leads!"
Any system of learning needs stages. When we are new, we need beginning lessons that teach us the basics and set us off in the right direction. Once those foundations are laid, we move on to the next level where we build on the lessons from before. And so on.
No single level encompasses both beginning and advanced lessons. The beginning levels are appropriate for those new to the path but become outmoded relatively quickly as the student familiarizes herself with the concepts and practices. Before long, the beginner needs to move on to other practices and ideas in order to continue her progress. This repeats itself at several points along the way, as we learn the lessons of our level and graduate to the next.
Consider the school system, where each grade is populated with specific knowledge that builds upon the previous level and prepares us for the next. Ideally, yoga practice does the same. This is why there are several levels in any yoga text and system. The Upanishads have the seven bhumikas or stages of development, which begin with longing and move through inquiry to purity and liberation. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras have the famous eight limbs that begin with moral behavior and proceed through the body, breath, senses and mind.
It is relatively easy to get stuck at a certain level of development. We put in a lot of work to master the lessons and practices of each stage, and it can become difficult to leave them behind and move on. We become attached to our relative mastery at that level. "I am so great at these beginning practices!" we tell ourselves. "Why would I want to move to the next level where I will have to learn new things and start the process all over again? I will be clumsy and awkward and ignorant at the next level." We begin to identify our self-worth with our ability to execute the practices of our current level, and we forsake further progress in favor of staying where we are.
Each level of our progress has the potential to be our downfall if we become stuck there and mistake it for an entire system. No mathematician would believe that algebra was all she needed to know, no matter how brilliant she was at it. A mathematician can not ignore geometry, calculus and other levels.
It is the same with yogis. We must be careful not to get stuck in the body, in the physical asana practice. Or in breathing, the senses or any other single stage, for that matter! The greatest mistake we can make is to think we have arrived at the pinnacle of our practice, and stop there.
If you are thinking about trying yoga or have just begun, there are a few simple things to keep in mind during your first few classes.
1. KEEP YOUR BREATHING CALM
As you do different exercises, you may notice that you are holding your breath or grunting. This isn't inherently bad or dangerous, but it illuminates tension and weakness in the body. Try to do each exercise and movement with the breath as smooth and calm as possible. Some practices will be easier than others!
2. IT'S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
It is easy to try to do everything perfectly in the first couple classes. But the practice of yoga unfolds over the course of years. Too often, new students work really hard for one or two weeks before burning out and disappearing, never to return. It is better to be calm and gentle in your practice. Let it develop slowly and you will make far more progress.
3. KEEP AN OPEN MIND
You may be asked to do things that you've never done before: unusual breathing patterns or body positions. (Luckily, as yoga has become popular more and more people are familiar with the basic practices.) Trying something new always feels awkward, but give it a chance.
4. DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT HURTS
At the beginning your body will be stiff, and some of the exercises may be painful. Err on the side of gentleness, especially if you're unsure. The teacher may instruct that the exercise is uncomfortable and that may help you relax. But if you have pain it is best to back off. You will make more progress if you can keep your body and mind relaxed. Over time your strength and flexibility will improve along with your understanding. There is no need to force it at the beginning.
5. ASK THE TEACHER
As you go through the class and the teacher asks you to do things you've never done before, there will probably be a lot of questions that pop into your mind. Am I doing this right? My such-and-such hurts, should that be happening? I don't feel anything...? When you are unsure of what you're doing or why, don't be afraid to ask the teacher after class. The teacher is there to help you learn and progress, so they will be happy to help.
There is a common belief in modern yoga that we are all one on the deepest level. It has the impact of making us feel more connected to each other while also empowering us. It comes from a tradition of belief in which the highest element, called Brahman, permeates all forms of existence including ourselves.
But there is a problem when we---ordinary people going about our lives of work and family---take this belief literally and apply it to ourselves. We live in a world ruled by our body and senses: we get hungry, we respond to emails, we watch movies and cute cat videos, we take vacations to warm beaches, we drink alcohol, etc.
While the belief that we are all one or I am divine may be true on the essential level of existence, it does not apply to the gross body or the minds (like ours) that are attached to it. It only applies to those beings who, as Ramakrishna said, have "overcome the consciousness of the physical self." Otherwise, "'I am [divine]'---this is not a wholesome attitude...He deceives others and deceives himself as well."
The problem is that we associate our self with our body and mind. This association is in our mind, where we imagine our identity and closely relate it to our physical existence. If we then add on the belief that I am divine, the complete meaning is actually My physical existence is divine.
The difficult distinction that we must make is recognizing that our true self does not lie in the body or mind. It is this self beyond the physical realm that is referred to in the phrases we are all one and I am divine.
Alignment is a buzz word in yoga.
There's a general consensus that alignment is very important. At the same time, there's a shockingly small amount of discussion about what alignment actually means. Sure, we can talk about how our body should look, but is that useful? If we base our postures on what looks nice, does this forsake how the body is put together?
Often times, yes.
One of the most common forms of approaching alignment is to attempt to put the body into straight lines or perfect circles. We are visual creatures. What looks good is appealing to us. However, when it comes to working with the body, we should realize that we're not necessarily made to be in straight lines or perfect circles. More importantly, we can develop our practice in a profound way if we stop worrying about the visual outcome, and think more about the internal actions. In a physical practice, we should consider something much deeper than what we look like.
To approach alignment in this way, we should consider the following:
If we can answer these questions, our understanding of alignment and our physical practice will develop in a profound way.
Put your forehead on your knee!
We've all heard this instruction thousands of times. The phrase and its variations have become synonymous with correct practice of "head to knee" postures. The problem is this: the forehead touching the knee should be a result of the correct muscular usage, not the end goal.
This may be a surprise, but there is little to no benefit in touching your head to your knee. Unless you are making the argument that the head benefits from its contact with the knee (which it might, due to a nerve plexus or gland), or the knee benefits from its contact with the head, it becomes obvious that the value of the position lies somewhere else, even if the well-known signifier of the posture is the famous "head on the knee."
The distinct benefit comes from using the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) to bend the spine forward, compressing the organs, glands and intestines; and from forward- bending the neck, compressing the throat. These two foundational elements are then accentuated by what the rest of the body is doing, whether balancing on one leg as in Standing Head to Knee, maintaining external rotation of the opposite hip as in Seated Forehead to Knee, or kneeling as in Rabbit.
Sometimes the cue---to put the head on the knee---and the posture work together. Great! The muscles in the neck and abdomen engage, the spine bends forward, the throat and abdominal contents get compressed, and the head touches the knee.
But often the instruction and the posture don't work together. Our head may be able to touch the knee without the valuable engagement, bending and compression. We get the end result of the cue, so we think we are benefitting from the posture. But the important parts of the posture are left undone.
Those that struggle with "head to knee" poses will get great benefit in finding their abs and contracting them as best they can. Will their head get close enough to touch their knee? Maybe, but maybe not.
Those that are stronger should try to get their head closer to their hip than their knee. This will continue to develop their abdominal strength and compression past the point of their head on their knee.
"Touch your forehead on your knee" can be a great visual cue. However, as practitioners and teachers, we need to remember cues are attempting to make an action happen in the body. They are not the goal in and of themselves.
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.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Lock the Knee History
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Hips?
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- What About the Women?!
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Yoga Cure - A Look Through Bishnu's Eyes
- The Gheranda Samhita
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- The Power of Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- What Is Namaste?
- 80 Years of "Hands to Feet Posture"
- Alignment Doesn't Mean "In Straight Lines"
- Breathing Through the Nose Improves Some Memory Functions
- We've Forgotten Why We Eat
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Wind Removing Posture
- Why I Teach Yoga
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted