"Locking the knee" is a concept in yoga that was popular in the 60s and 70s, including the styles of BKS Iyengar and Bikram Choudhury. It originally comes from weightlifting, where full extension of the knee joint and concerted contraction of the quadriceps are paramount. You will still hear weightlifters talk about "locking out" to refer to the full straightening of a joint that is under stress.
For the most part, this concept has dwindled in the yoga world due to the confusion it causes. There are at least 3 different meanings to the phrase "lock the knee," depending on what position you are in and who you're talking to. An anatomist has a different definition than a Bikram Yoga teacher.
These are the three meanings:
1. CONTRACT THE QUADRICEPS
This is the original meaning of the term as it comes from weightlifting and bodybuilding. Used in quadricep-heavy exercises like squats, "lock the knee" meant to straighten the knee as much as possible by squeezing the quadriceps with great force.
In the yoga world, this has also become a way to relax or stretch the hamstrings, since engaging the quads naturally causes the hamstrings to disengage. In addition, it is sometimes believed that engaging the quadriceps, which causes the kneecap to lift up, will protect the knee joint from hyperextension. (It won't.)
2. RESTING THE FEMUR ON THE TIBIAL SHELF
Anatomically speaking, a normal knee has the ability to hyperextend by a few degrees. It can go past the 180 degrees of a straight leg by about 4-6 degrees. When we are standing and our legs are bearing weight, we have the ability to hyperextend the knees and "rest" them on the tibial shelf. They settle back and the muscles of the leg relax, allowing us to stand for long periods of time without using much energy.
When the knees are resting in this manner, they are "locked." To unlock them, there is a specific muscle (the popliteus) that unlocks the knees before they return to normal function.
This definition of a "locked knee," which is essentially slight hyperextension, is often conflated with the first: contracting the quadriceps. Unfortunately, the combination of hyperextension and contracted quadriceps will accentuate the knee's tendency to hyperextend and possible create instability.
3. ENGAGING ALL THE MUSCLES AROUND THE KNEE
Normally, the contraction of the quadriceps is accompanied by a relaxation of the hamstrings, and vice versa. It allows for effortless movement of the knee back and forth. But this relationship can be overridden with conscious effort and control, contracting both sets of opposing muscles simultaneously. In yoga parlance this is called a bandha, a "lock."
When opposing muscle groups around a joint are consciously contracted together, the joint does not move. On the contrary, it becomes immobile and quite stable. This is often done to create stability and pressure gradients that effect the blood and heat flow in the body.
As you can see, the phrase "lock the knee" can mean a handful of different things. And it is important to note that the interpretations can conflict with one another. The first involves engaging the quadriceps while relaxing the hamstrings; the second involves relaxing both the quadriceps and the hamstrings; and the third involves engaging both the quadriceps and the hamstrings.
With the forthcoming translation and publication of Labanya Palit's book from 1955 (please support the project here), we have instruction from yet another of Bishnu Ghosh's students. Much of the information is similar to the other instructors in the tradition, reinforcing our understanding of the goals and practices.
Some practices that Labanya instructs are less common, and it is illuminating to place them in the context of history. One of these peripheral postures is Standing Hand to Toe, pictured above.
This posture involves balancing on one leg and holding the toe with the hand. It is a relatively less difficult version of the popular Standing Head to Knee, since Hand to Toe allows the body to be more upright and only one hand needs to reach forward. This makes balance a lot easier.
In 1938, Buddha Bose (pictured above, right) instructed the posture with a little twist, holding the foot with the opposite hand. This adds an element of crossing the body, which can make balance more difficult. But it allows a little twist, so it doesn't require as much flexibility in the lifted leg/hamstring.
Now, Labanya (pictured above, left) has a version where the toe is held by the hand of the same side. This is similar to the yoga traditions of South India like Krishnamacharya and Iyengar. It doesn't cross the body but requires a little more flexibility in the lifted leg.
As mentioned above, either of these positions is useful for anyone who struggles with the full expression of Standing Head to Knee. They require less strength and control, so they are great for beginners and older students.
Please support the Kickstarter campaign to translate and publish Labanya's book, as well as research the forgotten women of yoga.
On June 1st, we will be launching the official Women of Yoga kickstarter campaign!
This campaign will raise funds to translate and publish the 1955 book by Labanya Palit, a Ghosh lineage yoga teacher and author from Kolkata. It will also kick off the research into other women of yoga whose stories have been lost, forgotten or never told to begin with. You can read more about the project here!
We hope you will join us in this important campaign! Sign up for the mailing list to be the first to know when it's live. Stay tuned...
A backbend is a movement of the spine. However, usually the hips also move into extension, creating the appearance of the body bending back more deeply.
In some postures, this action is quite simple. The back muscles engage to bend the spine backward, and the glutes engage to extend the hips. The body will either move, or if the correct muscles do not engage, it won’t. While the principles stay the same, the application of them gets more complicated when the hands grab the feet like in Bow Pose, Dhanurasana.
The instruction commonly given in Bow Pose is to “kick!” However the body has two ways of kicking. Each result in a very different outcome in the body.
The first is the kick of a soccer player kicking a ball. This is an action of the quadriceps, which engage to straighten the knee and flex the hip. To a certain extent, the action of straightening the knee is ok in Bow Pose, but flexing the hip is not.
Remember, a backbend is the spine extending, usually with the hips extending as well.
If you use your quadriceps to kick in Bow, it’s possible (and common) to move in the wrong direction. Many people end up working really hard, while unknowingly trying to flex the hips instead of extending them.
The second way the body can kick is that of a donkey. In this kick, the glutes engage to extend the hip, resulting in the foot kicking back and up; a donkey kick. This is the correct way to kick in Bow Pose.
So, the next time you are practicing Bow Pose, channel your inner donkey and not your favorite soccer player.
Western medicine has known for decades (and yogis have known for thousands of years) that controlling the breath is a powerful tool to access the mind.
Now we know that this connection is largely via the autonomic nervous system. Every time we inhale, the heart rate goes up a little. And every time we exhale, the heart rate goes down a little. This is controlled by the two parts of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic, respectively).
In everyday life we tend to get overwhelmed with tasks and stress, which causes an overstimulation of our "active" nervous system. Our heart rate stays a little higher, we have trouble relaxing and we feel this as stress.
In recent years breathing techniques have been making their way into the popular culture, with everything from heart rate variability monitoring devices to smartphone apps that help you control the breath. This includes a great new app called the "Breathing App" developed by yogi Eddie Stern and Deepak Chopra.
The basis of their app is so-called "resonance" breathing, a specific, regular tempo that has benefits like lowering the blood pressure, improving heart rate variability and positive applications for anxiety and depression.
The tempo is not difficult to achieve and is accessible for nearly every person. It ranges from breathing 5-7 times per minute as opposed to our normal rate that is closer to 15 times per minute. (5 times per minute is 12 seconds for a complete inhale & exhale. 7 times per minute is about 9 seconds for a complete inhale & exhale.)
We recommend the "Breathing App." It is free and quite simple to use. It requires nothing more than a couple minutes of your time to breathe, regulating your inhale and exhale to achieve the coherence and resonance between the breath, heart and nervous system. Hopefully it will bring a little bit of peace, relaxation and well-being.
A common statement in many yoga classes is do what serves you. While on its face it seems like a useful and harmless instruction, it should be approached with caution. In yoga, doing "what serves you" takes you in the wrong direction for several reasons.
First, we don’t know what serves us! As students, we should seek to expand our limitations and beliefs. If we act within the confines of what we already believe serves us, it's possible that we are simply building up the structures in our mind. Doing what serves us can build up a false sense of knowing. But this false sense of knowing is what the practice of yoga is trying to undo.
If we look at this statement do what serves you on a deeper level, we find conflict in it. This statement takes the definition of who we are for granted. Are we the body? Are we the mind? Who is the you this statement is talking about? In yoga practice, seeking the deeper definition of this word is the goal of the practice.
Lastly, our job as yogis is to think about how we can serve, not to think about what is serving us. When we practice thinking about what serves us, our minds go in the wrong direction. With that mentality, we make the world into an entity that we believe should serve us in some way. We think about what we can get, and how we can personally benefit. But this is not the path of yoga. In yoga, we need to closely monitor how we act and what are actions are. When we do this, we realize that actions of service become a wonderful path for us to take. They connect us with humanity and other beings, instead of pitting us against others for personal gain. We should practice thinking about how we can serve, not about what should be serving us. This is the path of freedom.
As yogis, we need to be careful of the pitfalls of the mind. We should seek to find out who we really are. From that place, we should serve.
Why do we, as yogis, practice physical postures?
Depending on your goals, there may be a handful of answers to this important question. The exercises may increase your flexibility, increasing your ability to move the body without pain or limitation. They may help you relax, spending a little time each day focused only on your breathing and forgetting about your stress. They may help your balance, strength, blood pressure or sleep.
At the center of all these motives is the spine, perhaps the single most important communication pathway of our body and mind. We can live without our arms and legs, but we cannot live without our spine. It provides structure, protection and support for our heart, lungs, organs and head.
Almost every signal sent from around the body, from the fingers to the toes, makes its way to the central nervous system by way of the spinal cord. And almost every command about balance, movement or breath also travels via the spine.
So every exercise, whether of the feet, arms, hips or abs is also an exercise of the spine. Even breathing exercises and meditation require communication through the spinal cord as we control our ribs, abdomen and posture. Paramhansa Yogananda called the spinal cord a "lightning rod for the divine."
Our practices should contain plenty of attention to the health and function of the spinal column (the structural part) and cord (the nervous system part). We should keep the muscles of the spine strong and mobile, as well as doing what we can to protect the bones and discs strong; plenty of forward bending, backward bending and twisting. And we should also keep our awareness on the communicative aspects of the spine: its nerves.
As one of our teachers said: "The arms and legs assist the posture. Every posture is in the spine."
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!
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
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- What About the Hips?
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga