Yoga Cure, a publication written by Bishnu Ghosh himself has just been released! It was first written and published in 1961. For many years it has stayed in the hands of a close student of Bishnu’s until recently, when he very generously presented it to Bishnu’s granddaughter Muktamala Mitra. The Ghosh family decided it was appropriate to release it in digital formant to any who may be interested. With the release they extended the following statement:
“We hope the book will be useful to all who are interested in Yoga and BCG, and will also inspire people to take up Yoga and improve their health.”
Yoga Cure consists of 32 beginning exercises with photographs of Bishnu’s daughter Karuna. Some postures we are quite familiar with in Western practices such as Cobra, Wind Removing, Bow and Stretching. Others have not stayed as prominent in practice. These include Singhasana or Lion pose, Utthanapadasana or Leg Lift and Maha Mudra.
This is an increasingly exciting time in the Ghosh lineage. With several historic books being released including this one, we are getting a more comprehensive look into the lineage, with its rich history in therapeutic and medical benefits. Yoga Cure however, is the first look at Ghosh Yoga with text from Bishnu. Until now, we’ve only had his words in the introduction of 84 Yoga Asanas by Buddha Bose and in Muscle Control and Barbell Exercises with he co-wrote. (That text is not about asana however, only quite literally, muscle control and barbell exercises.)
In a time of great evolution in the lineage it is thrilling to have such a look into the rich history of Ghosh Yoga. As we evolve and grow as a community, it is important to remain deeply rooted in all that Ghosh Yoga history has to offer.
Once we have mastered Handstand, we relax our neck so that, instead of being lifted, our head dangles straight down. This requires more body awareness and subtle balance control. It is called Palm Tree.
I have always been been under the impression (and I hope I'm not alone) that the posture was named after the tropical tree with broad leaves. I couldn't tell you what one had to do with the other, but that is not uncommon in the sometimes strange world of yoga posture names.
Recently it came to to my attention that this posture is not named after the tropical tree at all. (Thanks Jeff Chen!)
We were reading through Gouri Shankar Mukerji's upcoming book of 84 asanas. He labels Handstand with two names: Hastasana and Hasta Brikshasana. Both describe the same position of balancing the body on the hands.
"Hasta means hand or arm and Briksha the tree. The name of this asana explains all, because the arms and hands support the outstretched body like a tree. Here the exercise is called Hastasana or Handstand."
The body is straight and extended like a tree, supported on the arms, hands or palms. So we could call it "Arm Tree", "Hand Tree" or "Palm Tree". The name Palm Tree, therefore, has nothing to do with the tropical plant.
Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji was one of the great students of Bishnu Ghosh in the 50s and 60s. He wrote a book in 1963 describing 84 asanas and medical benefits of practice. In the introduction to his book, he includes some wonderful instructions about practice. (Quotes are from the soon-to-be-released English translation, 84 Yoga Asanas.)
"The starting position for all exercises is a relaxation pose that is called Shavasana or 'Corpse Pose.' This posture is also resumed after each exercise and is to be considered an essential part of Yoga, because the system is based on an alternation between tension and relaxation...Out of this relaxation the intended posture is started for the specified time and one relaxes again in the Shavasana pose. Shavasana should not be assumed for too short a time, in any case not shorter than the previous exercise."
NUMBER OF EXERCISES
"It is not recommended to perform more than five exercises in succession, to avoid fatigue. It is better to perform a few exercises, but in complete tranquility, than to execute "one's program" at all costs under time pressure."
"All asanas should be repeated three times...One realizes that the exercises can be more easily performed when repeatedly practiced."
"The sequence of exercises should be chosen in a way that body parts or muscles opposite to each other will always be stressed, thus after an exercise extending the spine (Half Moon Pose) follows one bending it (Stretching Pose, Paschimottanasana). It is advised to alternate postures performed with muscle power with the ones that predominantly stretch muscles and ligaments."
I never could have foreseen the difficulty of teaching. The heightened awareness that is required, the close attention to each student, even in a full room; the true, honest presence with each instruction and each question, always seeking not what I think to be "right", but balancing where each student is with the best next step for them. In this way, teaching is less about knowledge and more about complete awareness of what is happening, and then balancing the two.
My own practice has become essential in the maintainence and progress of my teaching. Not just in learning new postures or specific ways to instruct clearly, though that is also vitally important. It has become essential to maintain my own energy and focus, even as our schedule and demands increase.
Ida talks sometimes about the sheer endurance required to travel around the country, the physical and mental stress of going to new places, changing eating and sleeping quality and schedules, and being present for what can be dozens of students at a time. It requires a lot of energy over an extended time.
As yogis, we believe in the infinite energy present in the universe. It is not unlike physics. The question becomes, as humans, how can we access some of it? Surely we can tap into enough to power a couple measly human bodies through the rigors of travel and teaching.
And so this is what a large part of my personal practice has become: finding and accessing the paths of energy in the body and mind. How do I use this energy to help others improve their health, or focus, or their access to the same energy?
The picture above is from Texas last weekend, doing a headstand in the living room early in the morning before a long day of teaching. I have found no greater posture for focusing the mind and energy than Headstand. It is great to prepare for physical, mental and emotional exertion as well as recover from it.
We leave Texas today after leading two weekends of workshops. 15 workshops over the course of 9 days, covering topics as broad as the origins of yoga, how the spine works, and the chemical effects of breathing.
There is so much context surrounding the physical yoga practices that we do. We often take for granted the way our body works, the benefits that come from the postures, or where the practices come from. We don't necessarily need to know these things to get the benefits, but the upside is undoubtedly higher when we know more.
By putting the practices in the context of history, they become clearer in intention and purpose. We begin to understand why yogis of the past developed them and passed them down. We awaken to the focus of any given exercise.
By learning how the body works, including the muscles, lungs and heart, we can see that the practices actually affect our physical and chemical bodies. There are mental changes that happen, but they are drawn into sharper distinction when we know what is happening in the body.
At the center for most of us are the postures. We practice them and strive to perfect them. As we depart from a diverse group of workshops, I am reminded how new knowledge and perspective helps us grow and refocus.
Those are the instructions for Bhastrika, or Bellows breathing. It is an intense and fast breathing exercise that accomplishes two important goals of yogic breathing.
The first thing it accomplishes is removing carbon dioxide from the blood. We blow out CO2 faster than our body creates it, which is true of any hyperventilating breathing exercise, including Kapalbhati. Removing CO2 from the blood makes the blood alkaline, and can cause us to feel light-headed and tingly in the skin. After this practice, we can hold our breath for relatively long periods of time, bringing ourselves into a deeper form of stillness: stillness of breath.
The other benefit of Bhastrika is the way it balances the autonomic nervous system. By utilizing both the abdomen and chest in the breathing (as opposed to Kapalbhati which uses only the abdomen) we alternately stimulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. This helps balance the mind and prepare us for meditation.
In the belly, in the chest. Out the chest, out the belly.
Years ago, when we were studying intermediate yoga with Tony Sanchez, I wrote down lots of little things he said that struck me as meaningful. Here they are:
ON YOGA IN GENERAL:
The only thing we are going after is health.
The foundation of yoga is nutrition.
Are you here to master the postures or are you here to heal your body?
Most people, teachers included, have been trained to look at postures from the outside in. We must look at the postures from the inside out.
ON PRACTICE AND PROGRESS:
Go to the place where you can be proper and find stillness. This will give you the greatest benefits. If you push past this point to your extreme, the benefits will not be as great.
The postures that are the most difficult are the ones that you need the most. Go into them slowly. Let your body adjust, strengthen and stabilize. When doing the exercise, when you reach the point where you feel your body go out of alignment to go deeper, stop there.
The objective is not to do the exercise perfectly, but to do it as perfectly as your body can at this moment, then to find the stillness.
Even if we can never put ourselves into the postures perfectly, the struggle, the process makes us learn, makes us wise.
The postures don't adapt to us. We adapt to the postures.
Don't modify the posture to accommodate the weakness in the body. Modify the body to fit the alignment and posture.
As you practice, certain things that you had to focus on before will be unnecessary. That is progress. Allow yourself to embrace new techniques, new concepts.
When you teach, you have to be able to work with people as a group and with people as individuals.
If you present a violent, aggressive class, people become that way. If you present a still, calm, focused class, people become that way.
Teaching begins with individual understanding. When the path is maintained for a period of time, a certain clarity is achieved. With this clarity, one can begin to explain steps or a path to other people.
Communicate with the students. Find out about injuries, what may not be working for them. Don't be afraid to say you don't know and then do research.
We must find what the student needs. If they have showed up there is some sort of desire on their part. There is some openness. Start there.
When you practice yourself, you use discretion in your choice of postures and how hard you push yourself. Many students, especially beginning students, won't have that awareness or discretion. As the teacher, you have to be extra aware and act as their discretion.
Focus your energy on the people who are struggling with the postures. Make the corrections. They need your help more. The advanced practitioners are already on their own path.
Help the people that need help.
If people benefit, that is your reward. You don't have to get credit for it.
Share your knowledge. Give it to the world with no strings attached.
Behave the way you want to see the world behave.
Everything from the outside is borrowed knowledge. From the inside is true knowledge.
There is no longer a need for a guru. So much knowledge is readily available, all you need is the discipline to seek it. In other times, if you wanted knowledge you had to surrender to a guru to get the knowledge.
A lot of people have been taught to be dependent. They have not been empowered.
One of the oldest practices of Hatha Yoga is Alternate Nostril Breathing. It is often named Nadi Shodana, which means "purifying the channels", and its instruction dates back as many as two thousand years to the Yoga Yajnavalkya. It is arguably the most powerful breathing practice known in yoga. Modern medicine's understanding of the nasal cycle and an exciting new study uncover new meaning in this ancient practice.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes your right nostril seems clogged, and other times the left side does? Our bodies have a natural cycle called the nasal cycle that alternates breathing through each nostril. This helps balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the body's temperature, as well as helping us smell and humidify the air we breathe. Sometimes we have a dominant nostril, usually because of congenital or accidental blockage of one of the nostrils, so our breathing might be dominated by one side. Studies have shown a correlation between nostril dominance and hemispheric dominance of the brain, meaning that one side of the brain is being stimulated more than the other. Also, it means that one part of the nervous system is being stimulated more than the other.
When we alternate our breathing from one nostril to the other, we encourage balanced stimulation our autonomic nervous system, help regulate the temperature, stress and alertness of our bodies, and even out imbalances that may have developed over years.
A recent study by Dr. B (full name above) shows another exciting aspect of this ancient practice. The subjects in his study chanted and did Alternate Nostril Breathing for 10 minutes. They showed an increase in nerve growth factor (NGF) in their saliva, a chemical that our brain uses to build and repair connections. The reduction of NGF has been linked to Alzheimer's Disease, so it is possible that breathing practices such as Alternate Nostril may lower the risk of Alzheimer's. You can watch Dr. B talk about his study in the video below or read about it here. More research needs to be done, but it is exciting stuff.
Dr. B's study was funded by Pure Action, an organization in Austin, TX that supports many studies about yoga. They are bridging the gap between the ancient lore of yoga practice and modern medical science, something we think is vitally important to the health and growth of the yoga community.
We are excited to be going to Texas for the next two weeks, first to Dallas and then to Austin, to teach at the Pure studios there. Join us if you can!
When I went to my first yoga class, I was instructed to put my body in positions that I'd never seen before. Obviously, there were many things I couldn't do, and my goal became to make those shapes with my body. I wanted to put my head on my knee, or straighten my legs, or touch my toes.
For several years, this is what yoga postures were to me: effort toward putting my body in the shape. My mental picture of the final posture is what motivated me.
Over time, I realized that the shape of a posture is not the goal at all. Each posture is the result of specific muscular engagements, relaxations and weight distribution. When we tighten the proper muscles, release others, and hold ourselves balanced, the body takes on the shape that we identify as the postures. The postures are the result of proper physical practice, not the goal.
This is why we sometimes say that you get the full benefit of a posture through proper effort. Because the "posture" is not the shape your body ends up making, rather the specific set of muscular engagements. In this way, a student with less physical prowess can get more benefit from a posture - indeed, even be considered to be doing the posture better - than a physically skilled student who can make the shape of a posture with little, no, or incorrect effort.
Next time you practice a posture, ask yourself: what should be engaging? What should be relaxing, and what benefit you hope to get? You might be surprised at the new insight you find.
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
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth