This blog corresponds to our "Traveling Through the Decades" series on the Yoga World Podcast. Available now on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
History is shaped by people and events. Over time, these moments accumulate and we recognize them as important and meaningful. Through the lens of Ghosh Yoga history, the first main character to bring attention to is none other than Bishnu Charan Ghosh. The events of his life paved the way for the Ghosh tradition of yoga.
When you walk around North Kolkata today, you will easily find people who remember Bishnu Ghosh. "Oh yes! He would always host events in the neighborhood," they might say. Or, "He was a very convincing character! Everyone wanted to be around him." Bishnu Ghosh was a showman, a teacher, a promoter, a performer and much more.
He was born into a family of yogis in 1903. Practices of Kriya yoga and bhakti (devotion) were common in the Ghosh family house. This had a great effect on the family, including Bishnu's older brother Mukunda Lal Ghosh, later known as Paramhansa Yogananda.
As a young man, somewhat skinny and unwell, Ghosh was transfixed by performances of muscle control and bodybuilding. Bayam (exercise) was quite popular at the time, and as a young man Ghosh developed a keen interest in it.
By the 1920s, Ghosh was involved in the All Bengal Physical Culture Association and started his own gymnasium: Ghosh's College of Physical Education.
While his interest was primarily on developing physical strength and control as a young man, as the years passed he grew interested in development beyond just musculature.
Ghosh published two books about physical practice, Muscle Control & Barbel Exercises (along with Keshub Sen Gupta) and Yoga Cure in 1961.
Known for his ability to spot talent and develop it, he trained many students who became great teachers in their own right.
Bishnu Ghosh passed away on July 9th, 1970 though Ghosh's College stands strong today.
While those based in the West may not immediately know his name, Dr Dibyasundar Das is a significant figure in the yoga lineage of Bishnu Charan Ghosh. He died Wednesday morning at the age of 68.
His family looms large in the yoga of Kolkata, including his sister, Kushala, and his brother, Premsundar. (Dr Premsundar Das is best known in the West.)
Dr Das devoted his life and work to serving and bringing relief to many through therapeutic yoga and homeopathic medicine. He was trained by none other than Bishnu Charan Ghosh, as well as Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji and Sananda Lal Ghosh.
In 1986 he founded the World Yoga Society to greater serve individuals as well as train others through courses in Yoga Therapy. Its youtube channel is extensive.
Today his photos line the walls at Ghosh’s College displaying how important he is to this tradition of yoga. Further testament to his skill and achievements live on in the many lives of those who he helped.
Our best wishes go out to his family and loved ones.
Triangle Posture - Trikonasana - is a relatively new addition to the physical practices of yoga. Along with most other standing postures, Triangle is absent from the texts of Hathayoga. It makes an appearance in the 1920-30s as yoga in India is becoming more exercise oriented. This makes it strange to speak of something like a 'traditional' Triangle Posture, since its use in yoga has yet to hit the hundred-year mark.
Below we have traced the transmission and progression of Triangle Posture through the last century, especially in Kolkata and the Ghosh Lineage. Among the students of Ghosh, it was consistently practiced for decades since its earliest iteration in 1938 with Buddha Bose. In the 1960s the posture disappears before being reborn as a deep sideways lunge. This is seen in Bikram Choudhury and Jibananda Ghosh but nowhere in Kolkata itself. It seems that this is an influence from bodybuilding, though it is unclear exactly when, where and why the change occurred.
It would appear that the evolution of Triangle Posture into a deep sideways lunge shows influence from bodybuilding. It is unclear if this is an innovation of Choudhury himself, or if it occurred more generally around the time when he was learning. Evidence of bodybuilding's influence on Choudhury's instruction is visible in other places as well, including the instruction to 'lock the knee'.
Triangle Posture itself is a relatively new addition to 'yoga' practice, probably being adopted in the 1920-30s along with other standing, exercise-based positions and movements. After its adoption as a yogic asana, it was relatively stable in its practice for decades. In the Ghosh lineage, it was done with one knee slightly bent, the torso parallel to the ground, and one hand touching the foot. In the 1970s, the posture underwent a significant change, perhaps being reinvented entirely, turning into a deep sideways lunge that resembles a bodybuilder's pose. This version is taught by Choudhury and his students.
For another posture that underwent significant development and change in the 1960-70s, see the Standing Bow Posture.
(Thanks to Jerome Armstrong for the insight about bodybuilders.)
Mula bandha is a somewhat common technique in modern yoga. It is generally accepted that this technique, which means 'root lock', is a contraction of the muscles of the pelvic floor. Some interpret this to be the perineum, the anus, or a combination of the muscles in the pelvis. The anatomical specifics of how and when to do mula bandha are not the goal of this article. Today we are looking at where the practice comes from, and perhaps why it was developed.
The instruction of mula bandha dates back to the early days of Hathayoga, around the 12-13th centuries CE. At this time, Hathayoga was gradually forming out of the tantric beliefs of Buddhism and Shaivism. Alchemy, the attempt to forge new substances, was widely accepted, and the spiritual seekers began practicing an 'inner alchemy' where the magic happens inside the body of the yogi.
According to this alchemical belief, the inner elements of a person could be forged to create immortality, divinity or great power. As Shaivism (the worship of Shiva) became more prominent in Hathayogic teaching, the concept was related specifically to the awakening of kundalini, a latent power of pure consciousness. The way that kundalini is awakened is by manipulating the 'winds' of the body, some of which naturally go up while others go down.
In Hathayoga, mula bandha is specifically intended to take the downward-moving 'wind', called apana, and push it upward. Once the apana wind is turned upward, it is fanned with the abdomen to heat it. Then it combines with the upward wind, called prana. The combination creates an inferno that awakens and raises kundalini. Below is an excerpt from the Hathapradipika, perhaps the best known text on Hathayoga:
As you can see, mula bandha is specifically intended to turn apana upward, where a whole series of events follows. This description of mula bandha is present in almost all the texts of Hathayoga. Here is one other, from the Goraksasataka, translated by James Mallinson. I include it because it is pretty elaborate and well-explained:
This explanation continues to the modern day, though it is rarely incorporated in common yoga posture classes that remove esoteric or spiritual overtones. For obvious reasons, a simple muscular contraction is far easier to teach and understand than a detailed metaphysical system of bodily winds and latent spiritual energy. Nonetheless, Swami Sivananda and his students like Vishnudevananda explain mula bandha similar to the older Hathayogic way.
Iyengar, in Light On Yoga, foregoes the apana-kundalini approach and explains mula bandha a little differently. He initially explains the bandhas as closing off "safety valves", which is reminiscent of the old way. But he goes on to interpret the term mula bandha as follows: mula means 'source', and bandha is 'restraint'. So mula bandha is the restraint of the mind, intellect and ego. This recalls Patanjali's famous definition of yoga at the beginning of the Yoga Sutras. Here is what Iyengar writes in Light On Yoga:
We don't think it's a stretch to say that this is a reinterpretation of the meaning of mula bandha. Separately, in modern practice and teaching mula bandha is sometimes taught as a physically stabilizing technique, again quite different from its original iteration.
What does it all mean?
Like so many things in yoga, the purpose of the practices can change so that they become unrecognizable. Does that make them less effective, useful or valuable? Perhaps. We think it is worth asking ourselves why we do what we do. What are the underlying reasons?
Personally speaking, we do not hold the belief that our bodies are populated by 'winds', as was apparently the belief for some time during the development of Hathayoga. We attribute our 'digestive fire' not to actual fire but to hydrochloric acid in the stomach. And we attribute urination and excretion not to downward-moving apana wind but to peristaltic movement of the intestines and contraction of the sphincters. Do these beliefs make something like mula bandha anachronistic? We think that they do.
Standing postures are rare in Hatha yoga. Most asanas are seated, lying down or upside down. (Of course, by Hatha yoga I am referring to pre-modern practices and texts. This was before practices of health and exercise made their way into yoga in the 19-20th centuries.) One of the few exceptions is Vrikshasana, the Tree Posture, which appeared relatively late, probably the 18th century in the Gheranda Samhita. Earlier texts including the Hathapradipika don't contain any standing postures.
Over the last few months I’ve been compiling materials to research the forgotten women of yoga. Through work in Kolkata, I came to know of a few names of women, some quite famous, who today are completely forgotten. The questions started piling up— why do so many women do yoga when it was thrust into the modern age largely (at least publicly) by men.
Through gathering texts and doing interviews, the layers of complexity grew.
One unanticipated layer is the talk of beauty when it comes to women and yoga. This isn't found in posture manuals for men, and isn’t about “radiance” or something that could be referenced in Haṭha texts. This is talk of things like “perfect breasts” and “thin waists”.
This made me think of my own journey in the yoga studio so far. The "no food is good food" was certainly a part of the community. I remember being complimented the most in class when I was incredibly sick with pneumonia and hadn't been able to keep any food but applesauce down.
Around that same time I was also injured. My hamstring was tearing but I was locking out my standing bow. (Worth it? No.)
Since then I stopped wanting to be injured and took up weight training. When my new trainer gave me 15 pushups as a warm up I balked! I couldn’t do one, yet I was one of the strongest at my yoga studio.
I have since gained 15lbs. And with it, the strength to run many miles, move hundreds of pounds, do pull-ups, (more than 15) pushups and most importantly, have the strength to stay injury free.
Since talking about injuries in yoga studios around the world, we've gotten a variety of responses. Some burst into tears and ask, “So it shouldn’t hurt? I’ve spent a decade thinking it was supposed to.” Some just shake their heads, acknowledge how obvious it is that a "healing" practice shouldn’t injure the body. Others though, respond with the predictable, yet disappointing response of, “Well I’m not injured. You weren’t doing it right.” Denial is powerful.
All of this combined has me thinking. Are we trying to be healthy or beautiful? Who is deciding this? Do we actually know what we’re doing?
We often get the question, "What do you think about using props?" In general, blocks or other supportive props can be helpful when practicing postures. Straps on the other hand, can take us in the wrong direction. Here are the reasons why.
A posture is a series of muscular engagements and relaxations. Getting your body to make the shape of a posture is not the goal. Rather, using the muscles of the body effectively will give us the benefits we strive for.
When we use straps or "bind" in a pose, we usually end up using the opposite muscles of what the posture calls for.
For example, in Dancer Pose (pictured above), we need to engage the muscles in the back to create a backbend. If we use a strap, we end up pulling on the strap to lift our leg up and backbend. When we do that though, we engage the wrong muscles. Pulling on a strap will engage a combination of the triceps, abs, chest, lats, most of which must be relaxed in a backbend.
Straps can also encourage us to achieve a posture. It is definitely exciting to practice new postures, and goal setting is helpful for creating longevity in practice. But seeking to achieve a difficult physical pose is a delicate situation for the ego. If we teach our body to work well and difficult poses become accessible, that is one thing. If we look for ways to get into a pose that short circuit the strength and control necessary to do the pose, that is very different.
It is important to realize we can always practice the elements of a posture even if the full posture is not accessible.
A position like Dancer Pose incorporates balance and backward bending. Balance can be practiced in many different postures. Backbends can also be practiced in a variety of ways.
Rather than using tools to make us think we are getting closer to a pose like Dancer, practice the elements of the posture as effectively as possible. This will be beneficial and take our practice in the right direction both mentally and physically.
Over the years, we have come up with what we call perfect postures. We consider postures perfect, when they follow these three rules:
Let's look at these criteria in more detail.
THE CORRECT MUSCLES HAVE TO ENGAGE
In many of the postures we practice, it is easy to get the wrong muscles involved. Standing Head to Knee (with the arms) is a perfect example. Standing Head to Knee should be a balancing forward bend of the spine. However, with the arms, it's almost inevitable that the arms engage to hold the leg up and pull the upper body closer to the leg. Also, the back often engages to prevent us from collapsing all the way forward. Both of these actions will not take us in the direction of the pose for the following reasons:
1) The arms do not bend the spine forward, that's the job of the rectus abdominis.
2) A forward bend of the spine requires abdominal engagement and back relaxation. If our back is engaging, this is the opposite of the pose.
This brings us to the first perfect pose, Standing Head to Knee with No Arms. While it is incredibly difficult, any attempt to balance on one leg, lift the other and round the spine will take us in the right direction because the correct muscles have to engage.
NO EXTREME RANGE OF MOTION IN THE BODY
The second rule for a perfect posture is no extreme range of motion. In some ways, postures with small ranges of motion are easy to find. On the other hand, yoga postures can easily incorporate extreme ranges of motion without us realizing it. This is something we have to be careful of.
Our next two perfect poses are Full Locust and Locust. In addition to the other criteria, they do not ask for any extreme range of motion.
WITHOUT THE STRENGTH TO DO THE POSTURE, NOTHING HAPPENS
The last rule that makes a posture perfect relates to what happens when we don't have the strength to execute the posture. In some postures, if we don't have the strength or control, we can get ourselves into a sticky situation. Examples of this could be a position that puts a lot of stress on a joint or a pose that lengthens a muscle too far. In a perfect posture, if you don't have the strength to do the posture, nothing happens! It is perfectly safe for this reason.
The final two perfect postures are Palmstand and Torso Lift. Anyone who has tried Palmstand for the first time will likely remember the feeling of "Nothing is happening!" While it is difficult to lift the hips and legs up, it's completely safe. Without the strength, we simply remain sitting. The same principle applies to Torso Lift. Without abdominal strength, nothing happens.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
Last month we wrote about the common shoulder injury Shoulder Impingement. The other common injury to the shoulder happens in the front, where the short head of the biceps muscle attaches to the shoulder blade, a biceps tendon strain. This injury is most common in Ashtanga Vinyasa and subsequent 'flowing' yoga styles that incorporate a lot of Sun Salutations and chaturangas. The shoulder can't do this action very well, and the biceps become strained before too long.
To understand this injury, we have to talk about shoulder mechanics and the muscles that move the arm.
PECTORALIS MAJOR & ADDUCTION
One of the biggest and most powerful muscles of the shoulder is the pectoralis major, commonly known as the 'pecs' or just the 'chest muscle', pictured to the left. It connects the arm (humerus) directly to the middle of the chest. Its main function is to pull the arm toward the chest in an action called adduction.
Try it: hold your arm out to the side (as pictured below, labeled adduction), then bring your arm toward the center, so you end up with your arm pointing forward. As you do this, you will feel your 'pec' engage. When you apply this motion to something like a pushup, the arms need to be away from the body, so the pushup motion will be pulling the arm inward toward the chest. Simply put, this means keeping your elbows away from the body. This is the safest way to do any pushup motion.
BICEPS & FLEXION
In contrast, if we start with our arms down by the sides and lift them up until they point forward, this is called flexion (pictured above, labeled flexion). When we lift the arm like this, the pec doesn't get activated much, so the work is done by much smaller muscles like the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder cap) and the biceps. The biceps cross two joints; they bend the elbow and also flex the shoulder. But they don't have the power to move the body's entire weight.
When we do pushups or chaturangas with the elbows close to the sides of the body, we are essentially moving the shoulder in flexion. This is not a powerful nor particularly healthy way to move so much weight. When we do this repeatedly, the bicep tendon (usually the short head at the attachment with the coracoid process of the shoulder blade) will often be damaged. This manifests as pain or soreness in the front of the shoulder.
There is a common belief that keeping the elbows close to the body uses the triceps more than if the elbows were wider. This is not true for the simple reason that the triceps straighten the elbow, and the elbow is doing a similar action in both versions. The big impact is on the shoulder and what muscle group you use when doing a pushup or chaturanga motion.
There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping the elbows close to the body and flexing the shoulder. The problems arise when we do this with our entire body weight and do it repetitively. This is how injury usually happens. Consider making the elbows wider, which will strengthen the huge pectoralis major muscle as well as be safer for the smaller muscles of the shoulder.
Happy, healthy practicing!
We're about halfway through the Ghosh 2020 challenge! Each day we've been posting a concept related to the physical practice. Occasionally, we've asked you to respond to questions about how these postures function in the body. This challenge is all about being clear about the goals of the practice and how they're accomplished. With this in mind, we'd like to address a common misconception about breathing.
When we breathe in the chest (like in Standing Deep Breathing), the abdominal muscles are relaxed.
This seems to confuse a lot of people who are used to hearing "suck the stomach in" or something like it in this exercise. When we inhale into the chest, we use the intercostal muscles between the ribs and not the abdomen. (More on that here.) The abdomen does appear to come in, but this is directly a result of the chest lifting. There is no action in the abdominal muscles on the inhale.
Muscles only have the ability to pull. They cannot push.
When a muscle engages, it pulls its two attachment points closer together. So, no action in the abdomen can push the ribs up. (In fact, engaging the rectus abdominis will keep us from affectively breathing in the chest, because it will pull our ribs down.)
In chest breathing, we have a second set of intercostal muscles that exhale. However, it is true that the transverse abdominis can help us exhale, especially if we are exhaling forcefully.
When you practice chest breathing, relax your abdomen. On the inhale, any muscular effort in the abdomen will hinder you.
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