Last week we asked you, our readers, for questions that you'd like addressed. We received many great inquiries, and today we will address one:
"Can you talk about the importance of stillness in yoga practice?"
As we consider the importance or lack thereof of stillness, it is vital to consider the root question of any undertaking: what is the purpose? Before reading on, it is worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of your yoga practice. The form of your practice should serve its function, meaning that it should accomplish whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. This can be complicated when talking about yoga, because it has changed a lot over hundreds of years.
Stillness can be confusing and even controversial in today's Western yoga world. The majority of what is practiced as yoga today includes abundant movement, often referred to as "flow." Various bodily positions are fluidly linked together and transitioned between, with lots of Sun Salutes, a calisthenic exercise that incorporates regular breathing with stretching, a push-up-like movement and some spinal bending. The Sun Salute (Surya Namaskara) became popular in India in the 1920s.
A contrasting style focuses on positions held in stillness, anywhere from 10 seconds to several minutes. In the past decade or so, it has become fashionable to refer to any stillness-based method as hatha yoga, presumably to separate it from the movement-based vinyasa methods described above.
For the past hundred years or so, calisthenics, gymnastics, acrobatics and contortion have taken the name of yoga. This is why so much "yoga" in the West includes movement, strength, jumping, deep stretching, rhythmic breathing, getting the heart rate up, sweating, etc. Calisthenics and exercise have been known to improve physical and mental health, and it is no surprise that yoga practices have veered in this direction as our culture puts more and more value on fitness. But these tendencies--movement, health and fitness--are new to the yoga world.
The earliest extant texts on yoga, including the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Yoga Sutras, describe a practice of mental concentration, turning the senses, mind and intellect toward the inner self. This practice doesn't include moving the body in any particular position, other than holding it “steady like a pillar and motionless like a mountain. Then it can be said that they are practicing yoga.” (Mahabharata 12.294.15) According to these texts, stillness of the body is a prerequisite for yoga practice.
If the body is moving, the senses are stimulated, including the sense of touch and sight to enable coordination and balance. The senses draw the mind outward, preventing it from turning inward in anything that could be called yoga practice. According to the earliest texts, yoga is not a physical practice but a mental one. So focusing on what we are doing with the body can be misleading, lest we think that holding the body in stillness equals practicing yoga. But the body must be held "as motionless as a rock” (Mahabharata 12.294.14) for the true practices of yoga--the mental elements--to be done.
WHAT ARE YOU PRACTICING?
Over the past 100 years or so, increasingly physical activities have been labeled "yoga," bringing us to the present day, when yoga has the connotation of gentle exercise, stretching and perhaps some spiritual elements. The physical focus has become more central, and the mental/spiritual focus has diminished greatly.
If you want to improve your flexibility and reduce your stress, the low-impact exercises that are now known as yoga will be helpful. If you want to increase your cardiovascular endurance, you should do longer, more repetitive exercise like running or swimming. Even the most vigorous yoga practices only give a fraction of the cardiovascular benefit of running. If you want to lose weight, check what and when you are eating, your stress and sleep. If you want to understand the nature of your mind, being and who you are, the meditative practices of yoga are for you.
In the end, it doesn't much matter what you call the practices, it just matters what the practices accomplish. So whether you call it yoga or something else, try to choose the right practices for your goals.
The Yoga Yajnavalkya is an early text of hathayoga, circa 1300CE. It is one of the few early texts with more than one or two asanas (postures) described. It has 8. It is worth noting that 7 of the 8 postures are seated, none are standing. Only Mayurasana (Peacock Posture) is not seated. It is also worth noting that Padmasana (Lotus Posture) is instructed with the arms bound behind the back.
Excerpts from Yoga Yajnavalkya, translated by A.G. Mohan with Ganesh Mohan
Uddiyana and Nauli are traditional yogic practices. They date back more than 500 years to at least the Hatha Pradipika.
To do Uddiyana, one holds the breath out and then expands the ribcage as if inhaling. What results is a vacuum in the abdomen which sucks the belly, intestines and organs up. Uddiyana means 'flying up.' "This practice is called Uddiyana because the diaphragm is made to fly up from its original position and held very high in the thoracic cavity." (Yoga Mimamsa, Vol. 1, Oct. 1924)
In the early 1920s, Swami Kuvalayananda began a school and laboratory, using modern scientific equipment to test traditional yogic practices and publish the results. His newsletter is Yoga Mimamsa, which started in 1924 and continues today. The first edition was dedicated to the study of Uddiyana.
They performed two ground-breaking studies, one involving early X-Ray technology to view the intestines, and the other measuring the internal pressure of the abdominal cavity during Uddiyana. "This exercise has been studied under the X-Ray. Very interesting and valuable data have been collected. Two X-Ray experiments are published...and an article discussing the therapeutic value of this Yogic practice is included..." (ibid.)
The pictures above are from the 1960s, when Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji performed a similar experiment. These pictures are much clearer than the ones from 1924, which is why we post them here. The x-rays from 1924 are cloudy and difficult to discern. In the above pictures, one can clearly see that Uddiyana pulls the intestines and organs up into the thoracic cavity.
The second test measured pressure in the intestines and rectum during the practice. They found that internal pressure is reduced, creating a partial vacuum. "As soon as the muscles were moved for Nauli, the mercury fell through 40 mm. indicating a clear partial vacuum." (ibid.) The discovery of this vacuum was significant, since scientists of the time hypothesized that Nauli reversed the peristaltic movement of the intestines, which would be detrimental to health. The discovery of the partial vacuum refuted this idea. Kulvalayananda named his discovery the "Madhavadasa Vacuum," after his esteemed teacher.
The Gheranda Samhita, written in around 1700 C.E., is the most encyclopedic of the hathayoga texts. It was likely composed in the Bengal region of India, the same region that houses Kolkata and Ghosh's College. This text was available in Bengali, a regional language spoken by ordinary people, as opposed to the sacred Sanskrit, so it had an outsized impact on yoga's development in the last few hundred years.
The idea of "84 Asanas" is prominent in Ghosh's lineage, with Buddha Bose (1930s), Gouri Shankar Mukerji (1960s), Tony Sanchez (current) and Esak Garcia (current) either designing systems around the number or drawing symbolic attention to it.
The concept is prominent in the Gheranda Samhita. The second chapter, on Asanas, begins: "All together there are as many asanas as there are species of living beings. Shiva has taught 8,400,000. Of these, 84 are preeminent, of which 32 are useful in the world of mortals."
The text goes on to describe and instruct those 32 asanas, by far the most in any hathayoga text.
23 POSTURES IN COMMON
Of the 32 postures in the Gheranda Samhita, 23 of them are taught by Ghosh and his disciples. These include simple postures like Bhujangasana (Cobra Posture) and complex ones like Kukkutasana (Rooster Posture, pictured above). They include postures that were taught in the early days by Bose and Mukerji but have been lost to modernity, like Mandukasana (Frog Posture), and ones that are nearly ubiquitous in all yoga lineages and styles, like Dhanurasana (Bow Posture).
Many of the postures that are no longer practiced are variations of sitting, with the legs crossed in specific ways, the hands held with detail, or specific focus of the eyes. These postures have diminished in modern times as the practice of yoga grows more athletic and physical.
MUDRAS, PRATYAHARA & PRANAYAMA
The last few chapters of the Gheranda Samhita cover topics that have largely been lost to modern western iterations of yoga. Admittedly, they are often difficult and require significant effort and persistence. In Ghosh's lineage, the practice of pranayama has been whittled down to Kapalbhati, with Sitali offered to some advanced students. Mudras and Pratyahara are more advanced still.
It is impossible to read the Gheranda Samhita without seeing the resemblance to what has been passed down by Ghosh and his students.
Over the past several months, we've written 12 entries about hathayoga, a form of yoga with a specific history and set of methods. The term "hatha" has been appropriated by modern western yoga to mean "the physical practices of yoga, especially asana," but that was not its meaning for most of history. For serious and dedicated practitioners of yoga, it is worth understanding the history of this tradition.
Below are the 12 blog entries about hathayoga.
What Is Hatha Yoga?
The Meaning(s) of Hatha
The Birth of Shavasana
Preserving the Essence of Life
The Two Padmasanas
The Strange Story of the Hatha (Yoga) Pradipika
Yoga Is Destroyed By These 6 Causes
Yoga Succeeds By These 6 Causes
The 15 Postures of the Hatha Pradipika, Part 1
The 15 Postures of the Hatha Pradipika, Part 2
The 15 Postures of the Hatha Pradipika, Part 3
In the first text that describes Hatha Yoga, the Dattatreyayogashastra (DYS), there are two separate systems of "force" (hatha) that can be used. The first system is the ashtanga system, with 8 parts that coincide with Patanjali, Yajnavalkya and others.
The second system is "the doctrine of adepts such as Kapila." (DYS, 131) This second system is a set of 9 mudras, practices "that assist in the preservation and raising of bindu, the essence of life, either through mechanical means or through the raising of the breath through the central channel." (1)
Over the centuries, the original system of bindu-raising got overlaid with "the visualization of the serpent goddess Kundalinī rising as kundalinī energy through a system of chakras." (1) By the time of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) a few hundred years later, the stated goal of the mudras was to raise kundalini. (HYP 3.5)
The mudras (seals) described in the Dattatreyayogashastra include mahamudra,
mahabandha, mahavedha, khecharimudra, jalandharabandha, uddiyanabandha,
mulabandha, viparitakaranam and vajroli.
Mahamudra: The "great seal" executed by placing "the heel of his left foot at the perineum. He should stretch out his right foot and hold it firmly with both hands. After placing his chin on his chest he should then fill [himself] up with air. Using breath-retention (kumbhaka) he should hold [his breath] for as long as he can before exhaling. After practising with the left foot he should practise with the right." (DYS, 132-134)
This mudra has evolved into the common posture Janushirasana, or Forehead to Knee Posture, which is essentially the same physical position done without the retention of breath.
Mahabandha: The "great lock" is performed the same as the "great seal" above, but by placing "the outstretched foot onto his thigh," (DYS 135) essentially creating a Lotus or Half-Lotus type position with the legs.
Mahavedha: The "great piercing" is done "while in the great lock" by tapping the buttocks on the ground. (DYS 136)
Khecharimudra: The "sky-roving seal" is achieved by turning the tongue back, putting it above the soft palette and holding it in the nasal cavity "in the hollow in the skull while looking between the eyebrows." (DYS 137)
Jalandharabandha: The "jalandhara lock" is done by constricting "the throat and firmly plac[ing] the chin on the chest. It prevents loss of the nectar of immortality (amrta)" from dripping from the skull into the fire of the abdomen. (DYS 138-141)
Uddiyanabandha: The "uddiyana lock...is easy and always taught because of its many good qualities...With special effort [the yogin] should pull his navel upwards and push it downwards." (DYS 141-142)
It is unclear from this instruction how the breath is to be held.
Mulabandha: To achieve the "root lock," the practitioner should "should press his anus with his heel and forcefully contract his perineum over and over again so that his breath goes upwards." (DYS 144)
Viparitakaranam: The "inverter," turning the body upside down, is said to destroy all diseases. "On the first day the head should be down and the feet up for a short while...He who regularly practises for three hours is expert at yoga." (DYS 148-150)
Vajroli: Vajroli "is a great secret," done by literally preserving the semen. "If the semen moves then [the yogin] should draw it upwards and preserve it." (DYS 155-156)
It is worth noting that these techniques have been mostly abandoned by modern western yoga. Mahamudra has been appropriated as the posture janushirasana. And the three locks---jalandhara, uddiyana, and mula---have been adapted and used for other purposes. Their modern instruction is quite different than in this text.
This system of Hatha Yoga is largely forgotten.
1. Mallinson, James. Hatha Yoga entry in Vol. 3 of the Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism
While the standing postures in Bikram's yoga class---in all of yoga---are mostly less than 100 years old, the 2nd half of class that happens lying and sitting is mostly filled with traditional positions from old texts of hathayoga. 8 of the 13 postures in the 2nd half of Bikram's class are from traditional hathayoga texts.
We looked at the three best-known texts of hathayoga: the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) from about 1500, the Shiva Samhita (SS) from about 1500 and the Gheranda Samhita (GS) from about 1700.
In the standing section of Bikram's class there are two old postures: utkatasana (GS 2:27) and tadasasana, which was originally called vrikshasana (GS 2:36).
Below are the postures in the second half of Bikram's class, followed by the traditional texts in which they are instructed.
Pavanamuktasana (not in these texts)
Bhujangasana (GS 2:42)
Shalabhasana (GS 2:39)
Purna Shalabhasana (not in these texts)
Dhanurasana (HYP 1:25, GS 2:18)
Vajrasana (GS 2:12)
Ardha Kurmasana (not in these texts)
Ushtrasana (not in these texts, though there is a posture called ushtrasana in GS 2:41 done on the belly and grabbing the ankles)
Shashangasana (not in these texts)
Janushirasana (this position was called mahamudra in SS 4:25-36 and GS 3:4-5)
Paschimottanasana (HYP 1:28-29, SS 3:109-112, GS 2:26)
Ardha Matsyendrasana (HYP 1:26-27, GS 2:22)
Shavasana (HYP 1:32, GS 2:19)
It is worth noting that all 8 of the postures, plus the 2 in the standing section, are in the Gheranda Samhita. This text was written in Bengal, the eastern Indian province where Kolkata (and Ghosh's Yoga College) is located. It seems that this text was instrumental in the development of yogic culture in the Bengal region.
You may have read our recent blog about the 6 obstacles to yoga described in the early verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important and comprehensive texts on hathayoga. In the very next verse, the text enumerates the 6 characteristics of a successful practice.
"Yoga succeeds by these six: enthusiasm, openness, courage, knowledge of the truth, determination, and solitude." (1.16)
Let's take a closer look.
Passion for study and practice is vital for a student in any field. Enthusiasm comes naturally at first, when the concepts are new and progress comes quickly. It is quite difficult to maintain when the student obtains some familiarity with the concepts and practices, and the rate of progress slows. The focus of study must always change and deepen if enthusiasm is to be maintained. If we try to repeat the same things over and over, the ideas become stale and we lose interest. This happens often in yoga: new students are inspired, but after a period of a few years there is a lack of progress and depth. They may change styles or quit altogether.
Openness to new ideas is essential at every point along a student's path. Like "enthusiasm" above, openness is easiest at the beginning, when all the ideas are new and we are eager to set ourselves in a new direction. It is easy, though, to get stuck in the rut and routine of the beginner's practice, carried by the memory of our early enthusiasm. The hardest bits of openness are when our practice must change. We must leave our beginning practice behind and evolve to deeper things. This change is continuous on the yogi's journey, and it is always difficult when progress is made and new techniques are required.
This is sometimes translated as "perseverance" or "faith," which have different meanings but point to the purpose of this instruction. If we are truly on a path of discovery, we can not possibly know where we are headed. Only a true teacher will know what lies ahead for us. Since we do not know what awaits us, we must have courage and faith to continue on the journey. Without this, we choose to remain where we are familiar and comfortable, making progress difficult.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH
It is the teacher's role to point the student in the direction of 'truth,' but it can only be experienced by the practitioner. In yoga, the truth is not something that can be comprehended logically. Its very meaning is non-logical, which is why it is always referred to in mystical terms. Our cognitive capacity was not designed to comprehend the greater picture of the universe, so the more we think about it, the farther we get from it. In order to have success in yoga practice, the practitioner must have firsthand knowledge of this truth.
Linking with enthusiasm, openness and courage above, determination is often necessary as we progress. Too often we feel that we are stuck in our progress, going nowhere despite earnest effort. During these periods we must continue our practice with determination, as well as check our openness to new ideas and our courage to explore them.
All of the practices of yoga are best done in one's own time and space. Without solitude, there is no yoga practice. With solitude and the five elements above, one is sure to make progress on the path of yoga, especially with a good teacher to point the way.
In the early verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important and comprehensive texts of hathayoga, six obstacles of yoga are listed.
"Yoga perishes by these six: overeating, overexertion, talking too much, performing needless austerities, socializing, and restlessness." (1:15)
Let's take a closer look.
It is interesting that overeating is listed as the first obstacle, especially considering our current culture's all-encompassing obsession with food, health, fitness, etc. Let's try to look at it from a yogic perspective.
As we progress in our practice, we improve our awareness of the different energies in the body. One of these energies---a very strong one---is the downward energy stimulated by eating and digesting. Yogically speaking, this function of the body overpowers the other energies including the upward energy of the breath and (according to some) spirit.
You may notice that you feel heavy after you eat. Also you have to go to the bathroom. These forces make it difficult to have a useful meditation.
Avoid overexertion. This is an instruction that is often overlooked as yoga practices become more physical and greater exertion is encouraged. Overexertion applies to both physical and mental practices. Since the goal of yoga is generally balance and unity, we seek a middle path. Moderate exertion. When we put lots of effort into something, even if it is our yoga practice, we are actually getting farther from our goal which is balance.
TALKING TOO MUCH
In a practice that is as inwardly focused as this, any talking is a distraction. Talking is always outwardly focused, and it draws the mind away from its purpose of inward awareness. Of course, a certain amount of talking and interaction is necessary to function in the world. But this instruction reminds us to limit our talking, as it directs the mind in ways that are damaging to a yoga practice.
PERFORMING NEEDLESS AUSTERITIES
This instruction is related to the one about "overexertion." The practitioner should not get too caught up in the rituals, rules and doctrines of the practice. Regulations offer guidance and structure, but it is easy to become obsessed about their performance. Unless we are careful, before too long the entirety of our practice is simply the performance of ritual and austerity. Since the path of yoga is a journey toward balance, we must beware of any step toward extremism, even in the name of ritual or tradition.
On first glance, this instruction seems similar to the one about "talking too much." Another translation clarifies, "being in the company of common people."
"Gossiping with people who have low morals, base consciousness and sensuous desires cannot enlighten your soul, rather, their negative vibrations may influence you. Social situations and irrelevant discussions definitely distract the mind from [yoga practice]." (1)
On its face this explanation seems elitist, but it is absolutely true. We like to pretend that our company and conversations have little or no impact on who we are or what we think, but they have a profound impact on our thoughts and actions. When we pretend that these things don't matter, it is simply because we are placing something else---like politeness or another's opinion of us---in higher importance than the well-being of our own thoughts. It is also possible that we are not aware of the impact on our thoughts.
This is perhaps the most obvious of the obstacles. Restlessness comes in many forms: an active mind, easy distraction, a fidgety body, impatience, lack of persistence, etc. It is easy to see how these things prevent us from progressing in our practice. This is why so many of the beginning practices of yoga are designed to remove restlessness, build attention and focus.
1. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, p.52. Commentary by Swami Muktibodananda.
The "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" (15th century CE) is arguably the most respected and referenced textual source of hathayoga. Oddly, its true name is Hathapradipika. Only later when referred to by other texts was the word "yoga" added to its title.
The Hathapradipika is mostly a compilation, drawing verses from at least 20 other texts that preceded it. Notably, it is "the first text that explicitly sets out to teach Hatha Yoga above other methods of yoga." (1) Like so many other compilations, it contains teachings from a wide (and sometimes contradictory) swath of history and traditions.
With its instruction of 15 postures (asanas), it is the first yoga text to include asana among its techniques. "Prior to everything," it says, "asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of the body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs." (2) It is worth noting that not a single one of the postures is done standing.
It marks a turning point in yoga history because so many of the texts that come after it quote it directly. It is considered by many to be encyclopedic and authoritative.
In addition to postures (asana), the Hathapradipika teaches 6 cleansing acts, 8 breathing practices, 10 mudras and a whole chapter on samadhi. These non-postural practices have largely been lost in western yoga, even that which is called "hatha."
1. Mallinson, James. Hatha Yoga entry in Vol. 3 of the Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism
2. Hathapradipika. Chapter 1, Verse 17.
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
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth
- The Art and Skill of Teaching