This is part of a series of blogs called Practice Tips.
As we expand our understanding of yoga, the amount of practices expand with us. We become aware of pranayama, meditation, more postures. We realize we could study texts, philosophy, or anatomy. Quickly, we realize there are so many directions we could go in. How do we choose?
There is no right or wrong answer. The best thing to do is to follow our interests. Choose what we are excited about and what intrigues us.
The best practice is the one that we'll do.
If we choose to focus on something that we are interested in, chances are we will actually come back to it on a regular basis. If we choose something that we should do, but don't care much about, chances are we won't.
This is not to say we should never practice something that we don't like. Of course, we should develop areas of weakness either in our practice or our understanding. But we need to be careful. We shouldn't choose only the things that we struggle with, if it will make us give up the practice entirely.
If there is a posture that excites you, practice that one everyday. If you're taking a class and the teacher doesn't include that posture, practice it after the class. Commit to your own interests and develop them. If you are interested in an old yogic text, start reading. Take it page by page.
One interest leads to another. Over time, we end up with experience in many different areas. But this doesn't happen all at once. Choose the practice that interests you today. The right practice is the one you'll do.
Therapeutic exercises are simple movements of the body that take the major joints and muscles through their functional range of motion. They are not fancy or particularly beautiful to look at, but they are quite useful to keep the body strong, mobile and painless.
These exercises are the basis for the yoga method taught at Ghosh's Yoga College in Kolkata, India. They are central to the goal of building and sustaining health.
Because modern life is full of imbalances — lots of sitting, hunching and looking at screens — our bodies and minds get out of whack pretty often. We get tight hips, tight lower backs, achy necks, tight shoulders, etc. Most often, these tight achy areas are directly linked to an imbalance in a major joint. On the opposite side of the tightness is weakness.
We use these Therapeutic Exercises as precisely as we can to target the issues in the body. Some exercises are good for balancing the lower spine — like the Torso Lift and Leg Lift — while others are good for balancing the upper spine — like Cobra and Full Locust. Still other exercises are useful for balancing the hip — like Squatting and Hip Hinge — or the shoulders — like Butterfly or Chest Expansion.
After years of consideration and discussion with the Ghosh family, we are finally releasing a book that contains more than 40 Therapeutic Exercises. We try to explain the use of each exercise as precisely as possible, both what it does in the body and what imbalances it is good for.
At the end of the book are a handful of practice sequences. You may know that 'sequences' are unusual in therapeutic yoga, as each person is different and gets a unique prescription. But we have identified a few of the most common issues and imbalances and provided sets of exercises to target them.
We truly hope that this book will be useful to you, whether you are a beginning student, have an injury, are a yoga teacher, a yoga therapist or a historian of this method.
The book is available for preorder here. It will ship on December 7.
This is the first in a series of blogs called Practice Tips.
When we start learning a new skill, it's brand new. We know nothing about it. Once we start learning a little bit about it, all of the sudden we know something. Even if it's the smallest piece of information or one brief experience, we just went from nothing to something. This is a big jump.
For example, when we try a new posture for the first time, it's really exciting! In that moment we go from never having done it before, to having direct experience of it. That is why in the beginning we can feel like we're growing so much. We feel like we're gaining so much experience and understanding even if what we are doing is challenging.
Then we plateau. We start learning about technique. If it's a posture we're working on, we might start to realize we're lacking understanding of anatomy. We might realize we have no idea how to breathe in the pose, or what the goal even is. All of the sudden we feel like we know nothing. We feel lost. This thing that we've been working on is showing us just how far we are from proficiency. All the sudden what we think we know comes into question.
Be careful here. This is not getting worse! This is what it can feel like to get better. In this moment, we get a glimpse of understanding beyond the level we're at. This is where we expand our understanding. This expansion is illuminating where we have room to grow. This is the very expansion that can and will push our practice forward. Embrace it.
We will always have moments where we feel like we don't know anything. Of course, this is not the case. We know what we know. If we continue on, we will expand what we know. This is what it means to practice.
Lately we keep hearing how hard it is to practice. We hear you. Many of us are at home, by ourselves, with no one holding us accountable. This is tough. We were used to warm and cozy studios, a routine, a community. Our yoga routines have likely changed considerably lately. While it's not easy, it's ok.
It's better than ok, because the practice is still here.
While we navigate loss, fear and a whole plethora of challenges, the practice itself hasn't wavered. It's there for the taking, anytime and anywhere. Let your practice be a source of stability.
Change of any kind is not often graceful or pretty. That is also ok. What matters is that we practice when it's hard just like we do when it's easy.
Practice is often seen as a sacred thing. We want the room to be quiet, our clothes to be nice, the temperature to be just right. That is nice when it happens but it isn't always the case. The important thing is to carry on. Don't wait for it to be perfect, just do it.
The nature of the heart is to beat. The nature of the lungs is to breathe. The nature of the mind is to think. The difficulty with thinking lies in the fact that not all thoughts are helpful. Therefore, we need to sort through them. We need to choose which ones are helpful and which ones are not.
We all have unhelpful thoughts. Remember, that's the job of the mind. It thinks! We can't blame it for having thoughts that aren't great. It's just trying to do its job. What we need to do is to ignore the thoughts that are unhelpful and only act up on the thoughts that are helpful.
We likely waffle between opposite thoughts on a regular basis. Here is an example:
"I don't want to practice at all."
"I'm going to practice right now."
Neither of these thoughts dictates what happens next. Only our actions dictate what happens. Either we follow through on the first thought or the second. This is the important part. It's here that we do the sorting.
Think of your mind as having an "unhelpful" bucket. Toss the I don't want to practice in the "unhelpful" bucket. Then, act on I'm going to practice right now.
Not all thoughts require action. This is important. We can choose which thoughts we want to act on and which ones we don't. Sort through your thoughts. Only act on the ones that take you in the good direction.
We spent the last year studying at SOAS University of London. Just recently, we finished the last of our work for their MA program Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. What a year! First, we nearly didn't make it due to a total visa and passport debacle. But last September, a week late, we arrived in London and dove right in. It was fitting then, that this March we left a week early. This time in the beginnings of a global pandemic. It was a not a dull year, that's for sure.
The program consisted of courses in Buddhism, Jainism, and what was called the Origins of Yoga & Meditation. We also chose to study Bengali to help us with our work in Kolkata. The language course was a nice break from the mountains of academic reading that the other courses entailed.
One of the other perks of being in Europe was our ability to travel and teach in communities we hadn't been to before. On our weekends, we'd pack up our homework, get on a train or plane and head to a yoga studio. Then Sunday evening, we'd head back to London in time to start up with classes again on Monday.
The final part of the program was writing a dissertation. Scott wrote about the emergence and meaning of early samadhi. Ida wrote about yoga in twentieth century Bengal. The style of writing was different than anything we were used to. It was certainly a challenge.
And now we're done! It was a whirlwind for sure, made even more so by the events of the past year. Now our task is to integrate what we've learned and experienced. We are excited to share it as best as we can.
This is part two in the series on Yoga in the World. Part one is available here.
Recently, we were asked to teach for the Biden campaign. We said yes. We did this because when we are asked to teach, we do. Unless we have a scheduling conflict, we teach because this is our job. However, this particular class angered many. Among messages ranging from calling us names to expressions of disappointment, we heard over and over that “yoga isn’t political”. It’s worth exploring this idea because yoga has been very political. Here’s what we mean...
Eastern religions were often promoted by kings. The emperor Ashoka for example, lived around 250 BCE. He was Buddhist. He promoted Buddhist dharma and emphasized social responsibility. This translated into developing a category of officers who were in charge of interacting with society and publicizing the dharma. This would be welcomed if you were Buddhist, less so if you were not.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior king Arjuna is instructed to go into battle by the god Krishna. This text, from around the turn of the common era, coincided with the emergence of feudalism. Essentially, nobility controlled the land and peasants were expected to work that land while indebted to the nobility for the chance to do so.
This presents a fascinating situation. As feudalism emerges so does a spiritual text which contains the concepts of bhakti and karma yoga. Bhakti yoga: whatever you are doing is yoga so long as you are devoted. Karma yoga: one should act without thinking of what they can get in return. Rather, they should dedicate the fruits of their labor to a higher purpose.
There are many interpretations of these ideas. Certainly it can seem controversial to present them in this way. However, it's worth at least considering what the role of devotion and renouncing the fruits of your actions could mean in a feudalist society.
More recently, and perhaps more to the point, is the role of yoga in twentieth century India. Prior to Indian independence in 1947, tension was growing and Indian nationalism building. One focus of Indian nationalism was developing strength. This meant strength and health for the individual as well as the nation. Since the purpose was partially to take back power from the British, indigenous practice was the focus. What did this mean? Yoga.
Yoga, specifically asana and bayam (positions done in motion) and Surya Namaskar were incorporated into Nationalist organizations.
Even today yoga is seen as a politicizing tool. For example, some are skeptical of the International Day of Yoga founded by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many feel that Modi's Hindu national policies overshadow the mission of using yoga to promote health and wellbeing.
We all have personal views on what we believe yoga should and shouldn't be. As ideas challenge our personal beliefs, we can get frustrated, sad, disappointed and angry. This is normal and a part of the growing process.
As yogis, we can embrace what challenges our beliefs. After all, our beliefs are constructs of the mind. Yoga can help illuminate these constructs.
Najar, Nida (2015) "International Yoga Day Finally Arrives in India, Amid Cheers and Skepticism" in NYTimes, read more
Thakur, Vijay Kumar (1980) "Social Roots of the Bhagavad-Gita" in International Association of Sanskrit Studies.
Thapar, Romila (1960) "Ashoka and Buddhism" in Past & Present Vol. 18, Issue 1. 01 Nov 1960.
UN: International Day of Yoga, read more
Many of us believe that yoga is a reprieve from the hectic outside world. Our outer lives are fast and stressful while the inner yogic world is calm and peaceful. But yoga is a system that has real-world consequences. You may have noticed that your thoughts, beliefs and actions have changed since you began practicing or studying yoga. And when our actions change, consequences change.
As such, yoga has a long history of interaction with social and political issues. It will be useful to examine some of yoga's core tenets, because they inevitably have an impact in the real world.
We want to examine the real-world impact of yoga in three articles. This is the first. Here let's look at some of the fundamental tenets of yoga philosophy: non-violence & truth.
A central belief in yoga and much Eastern philosophy is non-violence. At its heart, this is based upon the belief in karma: every action we do will come back to us later as a consequence. So if we harm someone else, that deed will return to us thanks to the universal law of cause and effect. We cannot possibly commit any action without reaping the consequences upon ourselves. In this way, we avoid violence as a form of self-protection.
This belief is somewhat in contrast with the Western view of violence. We protect ourselves, our families, our possessions and our ideals with violence if necessary. Violence is justifiable in self-defense. Violence can even be morally encouraged if we think that the loss of 10 lives will save a million.
Admittedly, this is complicated. It can be difficult to assess what we believe as individuals. But it is worth considering the varying viewpoints and their consequences. The yogic view, which avoids violence at literally all costs, has the possible repercussion of allowing the dominance of others who are willing to resort to violence. If I will not fight back, I will probably lose every battle I fight with someone who will. On the other hand, the self-preserving view, that permits violence in self-defense, encourages a highly-developed sense of identity and ego. It also encourages strenuous adherence to systems of belief, which can develop into violent action to defend those beliefs.
A yogic ideal with far less complexity is the idea of honesty or truth. To our knowledge, every culture encourages honesty. Our parents warned us from a young age, "Tell the truth! Don't lie!" The reasons why we choose honesty or lying are far more interesting.
Most interesting are our reasons for lying. Ask yourself: "Why do I lie? When is it justified to avoid the truth or misrepresent it?"
The reasons for lying can be distilled down to one word: power. We lie because it gives us power. When my boss asks why I'm late, I lie and say I got a flat tire. I have more power than I would if I told her the truth, which is that I slept through my alarm. Lying forces my boss to accept my version of reality, which allows me to dictate the consequences. Of course, this only works if my boss doesn't have access to other sources for the story. In that case, I don't have power over her version of reality.
This is the great lesson of lying. It is only as powerful as its ability to bend the listener's view of reality. When someone lies to us and we believe it, we are completely under their power. However, if they lie to us and we do not believe it, they have no power over us whatsoever.
Why does yoga encourage truth? Because it aligns us with reality. Every time we lie, we fracture ourselves from reality. If it is 2 o'clock but I say it is 10 o'clock, I have essentially separated myself from fact. I have constructed a small alternate universe and isolated myself from the real one. If we lie frequently, we remove ourselves from reality and increasingly exist in a bubble of our own making.
Yoga's goal is to reverse this process and gradually place us firmly and directly in reality. Not our own thoughts or beliefs, but reality itself.
Try it for yourself. Next time you are tempted to tell a lie, no matter how small, tell the truth instead. Your individual sense of power will decrease, but this is only a false sense that is driven by the ego. What improves is your connection to truth, which actually makes you immensely more powerful.
The way in which we relate to the world has real consequences. This includes how we think of ourselves and our beliefs. Are we willing to fight for them? Who are we fighting and why? Is violence justified by its outcome? Does the end justify the means?
Will we lie to protect our identity, possessions or power? Will we accept the lies of others to do the same?
Yogic philosophy answers these questions in specific ways. But that is not terribly important here. What is important is that we consider these questions. And realize that how we answer them will have real-world impact.
It's been a while since I posted an update on the Women of Yoga research. I have heard from many of you saying you are eagerly awaiting the research and wondering what is next. This is so nice to hear. I assure you that even though it's been quiet on this front, I am still at it. Here's what has been happening.
I was in Kolkata last fall and this past February. Those trips were largely for the Women of Yoga research so I was able to devote a lot of time to it. During these visits I met with family of some of the women that I'm researching, and many people who worked with these women or knew of them. I found the school Reba Rakshit attended, a center where she worked and two apartments she lived in. If you're wondering how this goes, it's a little like this:
"Hi, Please excuse me barging in. I'm wondering, do you have any records of a student who attended your school....about 70 years ago?"
Because this is a miraculous process the answer is yes. (However, there is one person who has a key to the room with the record books and they are not in. The person with the key is pretty much never in, but that adds to the fun of it.)
I have hemmed and hawed over how to approach this project. Should it be about one woman at a time or many? Should it be scholarly or more accessible? Book? Media? As that was all churning this spring, I was extremely close to a publishing deal. Then came covid. The pitch has not been abandoned but it will depend on the state of things throughout the rest of the year.
I've been doing archival work lately. I have also been learning Bengali since last September. The combination is illuminating beyond belief. I have found endless articles written by women about yoga from the twentieth century. I wasn't sure this really existed. It does and it will be compiled in some way and shared with you.
Scott and I wrap up our dissertations for our work at SOAS this month. After that, I plan to focus my effort more completely on this project. Stay tuned for more.
In a normal year we leap into action in September, traveling all over the US and Canada to visit studios and lead workshops. We spend a weekend in each city so that the yogis there can take real time immersed in study and practice. But this is not a normal year. Yoga studios are either closed completely, operating with severely limited schedules and capacity, online, or fighting for their lives as a business. Which of course means that yoga practitioners are left wondering how to practice and how to make progress.
This September we will run two four-week workshop series online. Our goal is to enable yogis to study, learn and practice as they would if they attended an in-person workshop. When we are in-person we usually practice for 6-8 hours per day. But that would be pretty terrible in an online setting, so we will break it up into two-hour chunks. One each Saturday, every Saturday in September.
BREATHING & PRANAYAMA
The first workshop series is about pranayama. More people ask us about this than anything else. It is a natural and important progression from posture practice, since once we can control the body, the breath is next. In two-hour sessions we will walk you through how the body breathes, the effect it has on the nervous systems and body chemistry, and what it means for yogic practice. Part of the sessions will be in lecture format and part will be practicing these ideas and techniques. Each week you will get a little homework practice that will take 10-15 minutes per day. In this way you will build your understanding and experience with pranayama, yogic breath control. By the end of the month, you will have the knowledge and skills to make progress on your own for 1-2 years.
More details about the schedule and sign-up are here.
The second series is a class series about Balance. We will lead you through 90-minute classes designed to build the strength, awareness, control and concentration that are needed to balance well. No lecture portion for these classes, as they are purely experiential.
More details about the schedule and sign-up are here.
Of course, you can sign up for both. The two are intended to work together and complement each other.
Our goal with these is exactly the same as when we travel to meet you in-person: to provide the opportunity to learn and deepen your practice. You may be a dedicated daily practitioner or someone who goes in fits and starts. Our hope is to inspire you in your practice and give you the knowledge and tools to make progress!
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