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!
"Suck your stomach in!" goes a common instruction in yoga class. This cue is present in a lot of different lineages and styles, and goes to the heart of an important conversation in the yoga world: What are we teaching?
Let's explore the meaning of this instruction, beginning with the elements involved. Namely, the "stomach" and "sucking in."
What is the stomach?
It is an organ in our digestive tract. It is high in the abdomen, just below the ribs and diaphragm. It is the first place our food goes after we chew and swallow it.
How do we suck the stomach in?
We don't. We can't. The stomach itself has muscles that help us in digesting and passing food through our system. But they are involuntary muscles that we can't consciously control. This instruction, "Suck the stomach in," refers to the stomach in a much more general and imprecise way, where "stomach" actually means "abdomen."
The muscle that pulls the abdomen in is called the transverse abdominis. It wraps around the belly like a corset, helping us breathe and stabilizing the spine when needed. If you are wondering what if feels like, exhale your breath forcefully and feel the sides of your abdomen. They will be tight and contracted. This is your transverse abdominis.
What are we actually teaching?
That brings us back to the instruction, "Suck your stomach in." If we take the instruction at its word, it is impossible. The stomach's position cannot be changed consciously nor can its muscles be contracted consciously.
The only way that this instruction makes sense is if we interpret "stomach" to mean "abdomen" and proceed to contract an abdominal muscle that "sucks in."
Also, if our students take us at our word (which I hope they do), they are learning that the stomach is something that can be "sucked in," which it is not. This is worrying, essentially teaching an inaccurate and incorrect concept to unknowing students.
The easiest of fixes
This instruction can be modified ever so slightly to become an effective cue. "Pull your abdomen in" or "pull your belly in" are both anatomically sound and they accomplish the desired result: contraction of the transverse abdominis. They remove the danger of propagating false information to our students and encourage them to learn the correct way.
With last year's publication of Calcutta Yoga by Jerome Armstrong, new light was shone on the history and progression of yoga and performance at Ghosh's College in Kolkata. We know so much more about men like Buddha Bose and Gouri Shankar Mukerji, and their contributions to the physical movements of Bengal throughout the 1900s. What is still missing, as is often the case with history, are the stories of the women.
Were there women practitioners? Yes!
Have they mostly been forgotten? Yes!
Is this about to change? Yes!
I am headed to India to start the first leg of formal research into several of the female practitioners in Bengal. Working with me is a talented writer and researcher Chandrima Pal, who lives in Kolkata and has already uncovered information about these forgotten women and the context of their lives.
As with any research project, we don't know where this will end up. Our goal is to publish a book about these women and boldly go where the stories take us. Stay tuned next week, especially on Instagram for updates about our findings. And stay tuned on this blog for longer form updates. As Chandrima said recently, "Wish us lots of luck and loads of leads!"
Any system of learning needs stages. When we are new, we need beginning lessons that teach us the basics and set us off in the right direction. Once those foundations are laid, we move on to the next level where we build on the lessons from before. And so on.
No single level encompasses both beginning and advanced lessons. The beginning levels are appropriate for those new to the path but become outmoded relatively quickly as the student familiarizes herself with the concepts and practices. Before long, the beginner needs to move on to other practices and ideas in order to continue her progress. This repeats itself at several points along the way, as we learn the lessons of our level and graduate to the next.
Consider the school system, where each grade is populated with specific knowledge that builds upon the previous level and prepares us for the next. Ideally, yoga practice does the same. This is why there are several levels in any yoga text and system. The Upanishads have the seven bhumikas or stages of development, which begin with longing and move through inquiry to purity and liberation. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras have the famous eight limbs that begin with moral behavior and proceed through the body, breath, senses and mind.
It is relatively easy to get stuck at a certain level of development. We put in a lot of work to master the lessons and practices of each stage, and it can become difficult to leave them behind and move on. We become attached to our relative mastery at that level. "I am so great at these beginning practices!" we tell ourselves. "Why would I want to move to the next level where I will have to learn new things and start the process all over again? I will be clumsy and awkward and ignorant at the next level." We begin to identify our self-worth with our ability to execute the practices of our current level, and we forsake further progress in favor of staying where we are.
Each level of our progress has the potential to be our downfall if we become stuck there and mistake it for an entire system. No mathematician would believe that algebra was all she needed to know, no matter how brilliant she was at it. A mathematician can not ignore geometry, calculus and other levels.
It is the same with yogis. We must be careful not to get stuck in the body, in the physical asana practice. Or in breathing, the senses or any other single stage, for that matter! The greatest mistake we can make is to think we have arrived at the pinnacle of our practice, and stop there.
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
- 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