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!
As face masks become a part of our everyday lives, the questions inevitably arise: Is it important to wear a mask during yoga practice? Is it safe? How do I practice yoga with a mask? Should the practice change to accommodate the need to wear one?
Let us take each of these questions in turn.
SHOULD I WEAR A MASK DURING YOGA PRACTICE?
It is clear that wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to reduce spread of the coronavirus. The mask reduces the airborne spread of our respiration which can contain the virus if we are infected. Worth noting here is that some people can be infected even if they show no symptoms. They can spread the virus just as easily as someone who feels sick, perhaps even more easily because they will not be thinking they are infected and will act more carelessly.
We should wear a mask anytime we are indoors because the air circulation is more stagnant than outdoors. This need is heightened when we are sharing a room with people, as we do in a yoga class. And it is further heightened when we are breathing a lot as when talking, singing, exercising or doing breathing exercises. The combination of these factors lead us to believe strongly that we should wear masks anytime we are practicing yoga in a studio, indoors with other people, regardless of whether or not we are 6 feet apart.
IS IT SAFE TO PRACTICE YOGA WITH A MASK?
The biggest concern we hear is about safety. Does wearing a mask hamper our ability to breathe effectively? In something like yoga that focuses so much on deep breathing, is it even possible to practice with a mask on? Does wearing a mask reduce the value of yoga practice?
The simple answer is that you can still practice yoga with a mask on. The practice will still be effective. Wearing a mask somewhat limits the ability to breathe deeply and quickly, but excepting extenuating circumstances, it is not dangerous to exercise or practice yoga while wearing one.
It seems that there are two things to pay attention two while practicing with a mask: your heart rate and lightheadedness. According to the New York Times, we should expect the heart rate to be a little higher when wearing a mask, though the reason isn't clear. Keep an eye on this while in a hot room, since the heart rate will already be elevated to help cool the body. It may be a good idea to cool the room a little bit.
Lightheadedness can come from lack of oxygen and anxiety while exercising. This will be most likely while exerting heavily in the most demanding postures and exercises. There is not a huge danger of this in yoga class, since we are not creating the oxygen demands of an olympic sprinter. But be aware nonetheless, since we need to breathe more when we do difficult exercises and immediately following. It may be a good idea to rest longer in-between postures.
The good news is that our ability to cool is not significantly effected by wearing a mask. The body cools through two main mechanisms, both of which are through the skin. First, the blood vessels in the skin dilate to bring blood to the surface. This is why the skin gets redder when we are hot. Second, we sweat. The evaporation of sweat takes heat away from the body. Neither of these processes are affected by wearing a mask, so there is no real need to fear overheating any more than normal.
HOW TO CHOOSE A MASK
Think of how specific you are with the clothes you wear to exercise or practice yoga. You've probably refined them over years to get just the right shape and material to suit your needs. If you do hot yoga and sweat a lot, you probably use synthetic materials that don't absorb sweat. Anyone who has tried practicing hot yoga in a cotton t-shirt knows how miserable it can be, since cotton attracts and holds sweat!
The same rules apply to facemasks. It is not recommended to use paper masks while exercising because the heavier breathing causes them to disintegrate, reducing their effectiveness. Cotton masks are probably not great for sweaty yoga because they will capture and hold onto sweat just like a t-shirt. It will be best to use synthetic athletic fabrics much like the ones that make up your other yoga clothes. Of course, this may mean that you need to get special masks for your yoga practice. Just like you choose your clothes with care, you will want to put a little thought and effort into your yoga masks. (We have seen athletic masks from Under Armor and Athleta. Probably other companies are making them too.)
CHANGE YOUR MASK EVERY 30 MINUTES
The obvious details of using a mask are well-known by now. It should cover your nose and mouth to prevent the mist of saliva and mucus when we breathe. Lesser known is this: it its recommended to change a mask every 30 minutes or so when exercising. When we breathe heavily, the mask will become saturated with sweat and saliva after awhile, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. So in a 60 minute class, bring a second mask and change halfway. In a longer class, consider bringing two extras and changing twice. This will maximize the comfort and ease while still maximizing safety.
ADJUSTING THE YOGA PRACTICE
It may be that we need to adjust our approach to yoga class when we wear a mask. Here are a couple of suggestions. They are simply trying to address the big issues that will come up due to the way the coronavirus spreads and the difficulty that wearing a mask may bring.
1) Adjust or skip breathing exercises. There are two reasons to do this. First is that heavy breathing increases spread of the virus. Second is that wearing a mask affects breathing more than anything else. The simplest way to adjust will be to slow and lengthen any breathing exercise, so that the air isn't moving as fast on the way in or out. Take an exercise that is normally 6 counts and make it 8. This has the added benefit of being more advanced!
2) Take longer rests. During and immediately after difficult postures or exercises is when the body's oxygen demands are the greatest, so breathing will be most strenuous. Because a mask will hinder the ability to breathe a little bit, take a little longer rest to allow the body to recover before moving on to the next exercise. This will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed when the practice is physically challenging.
3) A cooler temperature. Practicing yoga in a hot room makes the heart rate go up to help cool the body. This makes the body a little stressed, which is one of the reasons people love hot yoga. Add the stress of a mask that is reducing the air flow, and anxiety could overtake the mind. To avoid this, try cooling the room a bit. This will allow the heart rate to lower and the mind to relax, hopefully compensating for the added stress of the mask.
A little bit of yogic perspective. If you don't want to wear a mask, ask yourself why not. Is it because you've never had to before? Yoga is hugely about recognizing our mental patterns and removing them. So in that way this can be a great yogic lesson and practice.
Is it because you worry you will be uncomfortable or unsafe? Consider how unsafe you and your community are without masks. It is pretty easy to adjust the physical practice itself to support the bigger picture. If we are in this for health, we should do what will keep us healthy. If we are in it for spiritual progress, we should subvert our own egos and desires to do what is best for others.
It is hard to be a student. We are faced with juggling what we already know along with new information. As our bodies change, our minds change, and our practices change, we have to constantly adjust. Here are some tips for being a good student.
1. Do the work
No matter how good the teacher is, they cannot do the work for us. We need to practice in order for learning to be a good use of our time. This means putting in effort every day.
2. Be prepared
Ask the teacher questions that have come through practice. This is the difference between "How do I do the posture?" and "While practicing I realized I don't know how to bend my spine effectively. Can you watch and see what you think?" The first question shows no initiative to try and figure it out or a commitment to our own practice. The second question is what a teacher is there for: to guide us through roadblocks.
When assuming the role of a student, we are agreeing to learn from the teacher. While questions may arise for us, the best thing to do is listen. Give it a chance. If we immediately question what the teacher says, we are inhibiting our own chance of learning something new.
4. Be patient
Every time we learn something new we are a beginner again. This is tough to swallow. It's like a constant cycle of big fish/small pond to small fish/big pond. It's important to remember that we're not bad at the practice, we are simply progressing. When something is new, we won't be good at it. That is exactly what practice is for. We have to embrace what we are not good at, put in the work and be patient. Trust practice. It always works.
Read about the premodern version of Bow Posture, dhanurasana, here.
For the past 100 years or so, Bow Posture is done lying on the belly, holding the feet or ankles, and bending the body backward, as pictured above in 1925. Prior to that, the posture seems to have been done sitting and pulling the feet toward the ears. The question remains: Where and when did the posture transition into its modern iteration?
These premodern prone backbends are not called Bow Posture. By 1925 when Yoga Mimamsa publishes instruction, the modern die for dhanurasana seems to be set.
Kuvalayananda's book Popular Yoga Asanas from 1931 also includes Bow Posture, which is no surprise since it is drawn largely from issues of Yoga Mimamsa.
Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda in 1934 is curiously devoid of the posture. It makes one wonder about the influence of the Sritattvanidhi above.
Nearly every modern text that we examined contains the posture, from North India's Shivananda lineage, East India's Ghosh lineage, South India's Krishnamacharya lineages, to Europe.
All the students of Bishnu Charan Ghosh include Bow Posture in their instructions. This includes Buddha Bose (above), Labanya Palit in 1955, Ghosh himself in 1961 (demonstrated by his daughter Karuna), Dr Gouri Mukerji in 1963, Monotosh Roy in the 60-70s, and Bikram Choudhury in the late 60s.
Iyengar, in his hugely influential Light On Yoga, is specific about where to carry the body's weight and also to keep the knees slightly apart: "Do not rest either the ribs or the pelvic bones on the floor. Only the abdomen bears the weight of the body on the floor. While raising the legs do not join them at the knees, for then the legs will not be lifted high enough." (Iyengar 1966: 101-2)
The instruction and performance of Bow Posture has been mostly consistent from about the 1920s. It is still unclear when it transitioned from the premodern, seated version into the prone backbend. Its hyper-modern shift to greater depth that resembles contortion more than dhanurasana is also interesting, but a topic for another time.
Bow Posture, dhanurasana, is one of the few postures of premodern Hathayoga that is not a seated, cross-legged, meditative position. Its first known instruction is from the 15th century in the Hathapradipika, and it is also included in the 17th century Hatharatnavali and the 18th century Gheranda Samhita. Interestingly, these premodern versions of Bow Posture may be different from the modern understanding.
The modern version of Bow Posture, which has been prominent for the past 100 years or so, is done lying on the belly, holding the feet or ankles, and bending the body backward. Prior to that, the posture seems to have been done sitting and pulling the feet toward the ears.
Bow Posture's earliest known instruction is in the 15th century Hathapradipika: "Bring the toes as far as the ears with both hands as if drawing a bow. This is Dhanurasana" (HP 1.25). (1)
The Hatharatnavali from the 17th century repeats the Sanskrit instructions word for word. Here is a different English translation: "The big toes are held with the hands and are pulled up to the ears (alternately). Thus, one assumes the shape of a stretched bow. This is dhanurasana" (HR 3.51). (2)
This posture is done sitting and pulling one foot to the ear as the other leg stays straight, making the body look like a drawn bow. There are two ways that the instruction has been interpreted, depending on whether the hand grabs the foot on the same side of the body or opposite. So this posture has been interpreted as pictured at the top, with the hand pulling the same side foot toward the ear; or with the leg crossing the body as pictured directly above. The instruction is not specific, making it likely that crossing the body is not intended.
Nowadays, these positions are still taught sometimes. They are often called akarna dhanurasana, which means Bow to the Ear Posture; or akarshana dhanurasana, which means Bow Pulling Posture.
Bow Posture is also in another well-known premodern text, the Gheranda Samhita, from the 18th century. The instruction has changed a little from the Hathapradipika and Hatharatnavali: "Stretch the legs out on the ground like a stick, extend the arms, hold both feet from behind with the hands, and make the body curved like a bow. That is called Dhanurasana" (GS 2.18). (3)
The interesting new instruction here is that the feet are held "from behind". Some interpret this as bending the legs backward and holding the feet, as one does in the modern backbend. But it is entirely possible that this is the same posture as instructed earlier, and the cue to hold the feet from behind is not particularly ground-breaking.
The first words in this instruction, to "stretch the legs out on the ground like a stick", are identical to the instructions for Stretching Posture, paschimottanasana. This is perhaps a clue that the Bow Posture in the Gheranda Samhita is intended to be done sitting down with the legs stretched forward.
It seems most likely that the premodern Bow Posture was intended to be seated, pulling the toes toward the ears. The questions arise: When and why did it shift to the modern understanding of a prone backbend? As we will explore next, it seems to be established as the 'modern' Bow Posture by the 1920s.
(1) Akers, Brian Dana, trans., 2002 Hatha Yoga Pradipika NY: YogaVidya.com
(2) Gharote, M.L., Devnath and Jha, editors, 2014 Hatharatnavali Lonavla Yoga Institute: Pune 
(3) Mallinson, James, trans., 2004 Gheranda Samhita NY: YogaVidya.com
As we write this, from our home base in Minnesota, we have been reflecting on issues of race in yoga. From a philosophical perspective, any perceived difference between people (or beings of any kind) is not only a problem, but the cause of suffering.
In Samkhya, all physical matter is pakriti and therefore, not purusha. Meaning, bodies, skin, physical features are all of the material world. While the material world is real, we suffer because we mistake it for who we are. Liberation is the knowledge that we are not matter, but spirit.
In Advaita Vedanta, names and forms are nothing but Brahman. It is Maya, or illusion, that makes us see individuals as separate and prevents us from seeing everything as one. This sense of separation is why we suffer. Here, liberation is knowledge of the true self. This self is the same in all beings.
We were recently in a class where we were studying the Upanisads. A classmate raised some issues with a passage that we thought seemed standard at first glance. The passage says this:
Lightness, health, the absence of greed, a bright complexion, a pleasant voice, a sweet smell and very little faeces and urine-- that, they say, is the first working of yogic practice. Svetasvatara Upanisad 2.13
Our classmate highlighted "lightness" and "a bright complexion". When he pressed on, it was revealed that it could literally mean a light color of skin. Let's hope that was not the intended meaning for the verse. Regardless, it is a reminder to keep our eyes and ears open.
So, this is a time to carry on as people and as yogis. As students we have to be aware of what we don't already see. To continuously learn, question and practice with as much humility and discipline as we can muster.
As yogis we need to be ever kind, peaceful and clear with our words and actions. Black lives matter. Racism is wrong. On down the path we go.
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