The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are known as the fundamental text for the system of yoga. They are brief and dense, only 195 short verses, and they can be difficult to understand by themselves.
The sutras are not really intended to be understood without the explanation of a knowledgable teacher, and there is a long tradition of great teachers writing commentaries and explanations of each individual sutra. "Our understanding of Patanjali's text is completely dependent on the interpretations of later commentaries; it is incomprehensible, in places, in its own terms." (1)
The first and best-known commentator to explain the sutras was Vyasa, from around the 4th or 5th century CE. Vyasa's commentary is practically inextricable from the sutras themselves and known as the bhashya, which means "commentary." "It cannot be overstated that Yoga philosophy is Patanjali's philosophy as understood and articulated by Vyasa." (2)
It has been about 1600 years since the Yoga Sutras were created. In just the past 100-200 years, the understanding of yoga and the sutras themselves has changed somewhat, mostly due to modernization and recent philosophical developments. But in the prior 1500 years the Yoga Sutras were "remarkably consistent in their interpretations of the essential metaphysics of the system." (3)
Modern yoga has gotten far from the values of the Yoga Sutras, which focus on the concentration of the mind and emptying its constructed identities to find its underlying reality. Modern interpretations of the Sutras can be shaded by Vedanta---an old Indian belief system that is separate from the Samkhya system of the Yoga Sutras---new-age philosophies and Western modalities.
As yogis, the Yoga Sutras have a lot of insight to offer, and the accompanying commentaries are vital to understanding the sutras themselves. So when you pick up a copy of the sutras, try to find one with a traditional commentary. It will help you understand the intended meaning of this important text.
1. Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, North Point Press, New York, 2009, p.xxxviii.
2. Ibid. p.xl
3. Ibid. p.xxxix
So many yoga words are from Sanskrit, an ancient language that is an ancestor to modern-day Hindi and many others. When we use these words as English speakers and translate them into English, we have to convert them into our alphabet, since Sanskrit uses a different one.
We end up having to approximate some of the Sanskrit sounds since we don't necessarily have them in English. Also a system of marks, like accents, lines and dots (called diacritics), has been developed to clarify the sounds of the Sanskrit language. If we don't read these marks correctly, we can end up pronouncing a word wrong.
Let's look at two commonly mispronounced yoga words: shavasana and chakra.
Shavasana means Corpse Posture, since the word shava means corpse. The first letter of the word is श, pronounced sha. When it is written in English, the word usually gets a little accent mark over the "s", śavāsana. This is the official, scholarly way to write the word. But as you can see, if you don't read the accent, the word looks like "savasana", with the "s" sounding like "sedan" instead of "sh" like "shirt". So the word is commonly mispronounced as savasana, when the proper pronunciation is shavasana.
Chakra means wheel. In the yoga world it often refers to visualizations or energy centers of a "subtle body". The first letter of the word is च, pronounced cha, with the "ch" sound like "chair". It often gets mispronounced as shakra, with an "sh" sound like "shout" or "chandelier". The same is true of the common Sanskrit word chandra, which means "moon". It is commonly mispronounced as shandra, but the correct pronunciation is cha-ndra with the "ch" like chair.
Sometimes it is suggested that the pronunciation can vary, like toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. Or that a different pronunciation suggests a different meaning. That is not the case here, where the mispronunciation happens as a result of translating the Sanskrit sounds into English letters, and then reading them. The sound and spelling of these words in Sanskrit is quite clear.
One of the essential---and I mean ESSENTIAL---elements of yoga is humility: searching for and recognizing the true nature of who we are. As such, ego is a fundamental enemy of yoga. This isn't necessarily ego as in: "he or she has a big ego", but rather mistaking our true identity with our body and mind.
So any action or practice that encourages us to think of our body or mind as our true self is going to take us in the wrong direction. The same is true for any entity that we create, a brand, a product, a philosophy or a system of yogic practice. Confusing our accomplishments with the true nature of our being is a mistake and leads us away from contentment. (This is admittedly difficult because we want to build up our egos to create a worldly sense of security and value.)
CREATING A YOGA METHOD
There is no problem at all with developing or revising a method of yoga. Each culture and time period has its own language and tendencies, so the methods of communication and practice necessarily change, even if the goal is the same. Great teachers are usually ones who can communicate clearly to a population that others have failed to reach. It is of course vital that the goal of yoga---recognition and experience of the true self---remains regardless of the practices to achieve it.
So...what should one name a system of yoga?
Many name their systems after concepts or terms from yogic history or philosophy, like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Kundalini. These names have the benefit of referring to concepts that are bigger than the originator and any individual teacher, but have the drawback of being misleading, especially if you understand the meaning of the terms.
Others name their systems after their teacher. This is a sign of humility and respect while also recognizing the uniqueness and specificity of the teachings. The drawback here is that each teacher will inevitably put his or her own interpretation on the teachings, so they will naturally evolve even when the name suggests that the teachings are from a specific teacher in the past. A good example of this is Sivananda Yoga, which was developed and named by Swami Vishnudevananda, a student of Sivananda. Sivananda's own organization is called the Divine Life Society. (We at Ghosh Yoga fall into this category, teaching a yoga system named after the teacher of our teachers.)
Some name their systems after themselves, including Iyengar, Bikram, Forrest and Baptiste. This has the advantage of being quite specific about the practices and beliefs therein, even with the implied statement that "this is yoga as I see and teach it." It is very personal. The main problem with this is not in its clarity about the system, but in its danger to the founder. By naming a system after oneself and then dedicating years to building it up, it is almost inevitable that the name, the character and the ego get built too. This takes one very far indeed from the goals of yogic practice.
It seems that history is littered with holy men and yogis who have been disgraced by acts immoral and illegal. In their youth they may have been full of skill, insight, light and promise, but as the years passed they somehow lost their purity and path, becoming attached to fame, riches, power and the adoration of their followers.
We are left to wonder how we missed the signs of evil. Were they there all along, even when they were so young and seemed so pure? Were they hiding their true intentions, duping us into trust and faith? Is their evil misunderstood? Are they the victims of circumstance?
In truth, a yogi can be pure, realized and glorious at one point and then become overrun by worldly desires and corruption at another point. The two are not mutually exclusive, and presence of one does not mean that the other never existed or never will exist.
The mind of a yogi---or an ordinary person, for that matter---is like a garden. It begins as a wild forest, overrun with natural growth until it is cultivated by disciplined practice and study. If we practice with dedication, we can turn the mind into a beautiful, lush and organized garden. But a garden takes constant attention, tending to the plants that are growing and removing the resurgent weeds that will never stop coming.
Even a few weeks of neglect allow the wild weeds of the mind to grow and gain traction. If we neglect our practice and discipline for years or decades, even the finest mind will be overrun just as a garden neglected for years or decades will turn back to wilderness.
Regardless of how pure or holy we may be, we are never beyond the need for discipline, practice and study. We must constantly tend our gardens, because the weeds will always grow. Even a great yogi can be overwhelmed by the desires and attachments of the mind.
One of the simplest movements in the body is bending forward to touch the toes (not that it is necessarily easy!). This position is often called Padahastasana, which means "Foot Hand Posture", basically putting the hands by the feet. It has been around for nearly as long as any standing, athletic yoga posture, which is to say about 100 years. Its instruction, even within this lineage, has varied slightly. This is an exploration of the evolution of the posture from its earliest known iteration in 1938 to the present day.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY, 2000
In 2000, Choudhury published a second edition of his 26-posture sequence. The written instructions are the same, but the position in the accompanying photograph is slightly different, especially the position of the fingers, which are now underneath the heels.
THINGS WORTH NOTING
Buddha Bose and Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji instruct the posture almost identically, with the palms on the floor in front of the feet and the forehead or nose against the knees. Interestingly, they suggest two different methods for anyone with difficulty. Bose suggest slightly bending the legs while Mukerji recommends grasping the ankles with the hands to pull the head toward the legs.
Ghosh's 1961 instruction to hold the heels and "pull your body" is almost identical to Choudhury's method. These match Mukerji's instruction when there is difficulty putting the palms on the floor, to "grasp both ankles with the hands" and pull the body down more.
The photograph in Choudhury 2000, with the fingers underneath the heels, seems to be an innovation designed to gain more leverage to pull the body down. Interestingly, his written instructions did not change at all from the 1978 version.
It is as if there are two different postures being instructed here, clearly distinguished by the distance of the upper body from the legs. Bose and Mukerji emphasize placing the head close to the legs, but their bodies have visible distance from the thighs. Ghosh and Choudhury have instructed postures with the torso touching the legs and using the arms to pull the body into the position.
The Dattatreyayogashastra, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, is the first known text to explain a system of hathayoga. There are other descriptions of many of its practices in previous texts, but this is the first time when they are given the title hathayoga. Hathayoga is described alongside three other forms of yoga: mantrayoga, layayoga and rajayoga.
Dattātreya said: “Yoga has many forms, o brahmin. I shall explain all that to you: the Yoga of Mantras (mantrayoga), the Yoga of Dissolution (layayoga) and the Yoga of Force (hathayoga). The fourth is the Royal Yoga (rājayoga); it is the best of yogas." - verses 8-11
The sections on the other three forms are brief, but Dattatreya writes in depth about the practices of hathayoga, the yoga of force. Not only that, but the text describes two separate forms of hathayoga: "the yoga of eight auxiliaries known by Yājñavalkya and others" (29), and "the doctrine of adepts such as Kapila" (131).
THE YOGA OF EIGHT AUXILIARIES
Yajnavalkya's yoga of eight auxiliaries is closely related to the well-known eight part system of Patanjali. It begins with Rules (yama) and Restraints (niyama) and proceeds to Posture (asana), Breath-control (pranayama), Fixation (dharana), Meditation (dhyana) and Absorption (samadhi). It is interesting the Dattatreya references Yajnavalkya but not Patanjali.
Of the rules (yamas), "a moderate diet is the single most important, not any of the others. Of the restraints, non-violence is the single most important, not any of the others" (33). Posture (asana) is afforded a healthy couple of paragraphs, mentioning the sacred "84 lakh postures" (34) but describing only one: the Lotus Posture.
Breath-control gets the most attention with more than 30 verses. The section describes alternate nostril breathing, advising 20 breath retentions in the morning, 20 at midday, 20 in the evening and 20 at midnight. The final three auxiliaries get relatively brief treatment before the text moves on to the second form of hathayoga.
THE WAY OF KAPILA
Separate from the above methods are the methods of Kapila, also called hathayoga. "Adepts such as Kapila, on the other hand, practised Force [hatha] in a different manner" (29). "The difference is a difference in practice, but the reward is one and the same" (131).
Kapila's methods entail several mudras and bandhas, which involve the combination of physical position---"He should stretch out his right foot and hold it firmly with both hands" (133)---with breath-control---"he should hold [his breath] for as long as he can before exhaling" (134). The purpose of these practices is to move the winds and sacred fluids around the body.
It is not stated explicitly if the two forms of hathayoga can be practiced together or whether they should be kept separate. Over the ensuing centuries hathayoga became consolidated, combining the practices of the eight auxiliaries with the mudra practices of Kapila. In modern decades, hathayoga has evolved into a non-specific term meaning "the physical practices of yoga".
We will leave you with a final thought from Dattatreya:
"[If] diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice...the wise man endowed with faith who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices - how could it happen for one who does not?" (40-42).
- All quotations are from: James Mallinson, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, 2013.
On our recent trip to India we visited Kaivalyadhama, the oldest yoga research facility in the world. It was founded by a yogi named Kuvalayananda, who dedicated his life to the three-fold mission of healing people through yoga, teaching the next generation of teachers and researching the scientific impact of the practices.
The Kaivalyadhama campus now covers about 200 acres. It has grown from its humble beginnings as a small room for conducting research. As we walked the grounds, we were struck by a quotation from Kuvalayananda:
"I have brought up this institute out of nothing.
If it goes to nothing, I do not mind,
but Yoga should not be diluted."
It is a bold statement that shows clear values. Success---in terms of reach, money acquired or people reached---is not important. He goes so far as to say that he doesn't mind if the whole thing disappears!
What was vital to Kuvalayananda was the integrity of the teachings: "Yoga must not be diluted." It takes a strong vision and a strong will to carry out this mission, because it is far too easy to compromise our goals when survival or popularity enter the picture.
This shows the intent of a yogi who's thoughts and actions are not swayed by worldly desires. Money comes and goes. Popularity comes and goes. Happiness comes and goes. Even our lives come and go. But knowledge and truth remain. We must not dilute knowledge for the sake of temporary things, even if our institutes go "to nothing".
We often get questions about namaste, a word that has become practically ubiquitous in western yoga classes, where most teachers will end class by saying it.
As you may already know, namaste involves placing the palms together in prayer in front of the chest. Often the head bows and the word namaste is spoken. The literal meaning is "I bow to you". It is a greeting and a display of respect.
Namaste in Western yoga culture has been imbued with high meaning: that there is a divine being in me which recognizes a divine being in you. This belief comes from a spiritual philosophy called Advaita Vedanta, which argues that all the world is one; that any perceived separation between entities, including between you and me, is a misperception.
This may seem like a lot of meaning to squeeze into one little word, and it is. In its most common sense, namaste simply means "hello" or "greetings". When deeper, more spiritual meaning is desired, you might be more specific by naming the entity to whom you bow: "Teacher, I bow to you", "God, I bow to you", "Highest self, I bow to you".
It is easy to overlook the cultural reasons for the hand gesture. In the west, we shake hands or even hug when we greet. In India shaking hands is quite uncommon. It is impolite to touch other people, since the hands are used for other activities like eating and washing the body. The hands are of questionable cleanliness, so we keep them to ourselves when we greet one another. What happens instead is we touch our hands together in greeting, forming a prayer or namaste gesture.
HOW & WHEN DID IT BECOME SO POPULAR
The word namah is common in old Sanskrit texts. Like mentioned above, it is generally accompanied by something more specific, naming the entity to whom we are bowing with respect and devotion.
What we often overlook is that namaste is a common modern Hindi word that has been used in recent decades by Indian yoga teachers and public figures who speak Hindi. There are many examples of Ghandi, Nehru and Osho stepping onstage before a large audience and assuming the namaste hand position. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s this captured the imagination of the Beat and Hippie generations in the West. They were quick to adopt the respectful and peaceful gesture.
Over the ensuing decades, namaste has evolved from a respectful greeting to a full-on spiritual statement, which is perhaps overblowing it.
We don't say namaste at the end of practice, nor do the Indian teachers we know or the Vedantic swamis with whom we have studied. When we're in India, we say it all the time as a greeting to people we meet. When we're in Kolkata, we say nomoshkar, which is the Bengali equivalent.
There is, though, a word which carries significant meaning and history. It is what the swamis say at the beginning and end of every lecture, class, meditation and mantra: om. Om is a word that is present in the Vedas (there's even an entire Upanishad devoted to it) and the Yogasutras, explained as containing the sound and meaning of all creation. In our estimation, om is a more appropriate word to remind us of oneness, humility, respect and devotion.
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.
This week we are in Tokyo, Japan, connecting with part of the Ghosh lineage. Namely, the family of Karuna and Jibananda Ghosh, and their son Bubai.
Karuna was the youngest daughter of Bishnu Ghosh, and after Bishnu's death in 1970, she and her husband Jibananda adopted Bishnu's dream of establishing a yoga school in Japan. They came to Tokyo and founded the Ghosh Yoga Institute Japan. Ever since, they have been instructing prescriptive and therapeutic yoga from a humble room here. The yoga has always been one on one, with each student getting unique attention and instruction from the teacher.
We have known about the Tokyo family only vaguely, aware that Bishnu traveled here with performance troupes, doing feats of strength and contortion. There are widespread videos of some of these performances. We knew that he had set up a yoga school and that perhaps Buddha Bose and his sons were involved in the early days. Thanks to Jerome Armstrong's new book Calcutta Yoga, we were aware that a handful of young teachers were sent to Tokyo as holdovers while a more permanent teaching solution was found. Among these young teachers was Bikram Choudhury, who passed through Tokyo before eventually settling in the USA.
But we have been ignorant of the depth of history and knowledge here. This limb of the Ghosh family has committed themselves to yoga for 50 years. They established and fostered a school and community here, ambassadors of yoga to a new culture.
Karuna Ghosh died in 2006, partly due to old internal damage from carrying heavy objects like elephants on her chest. Jibananda still runs the Institute. Their son Bubai is a businessman who also teaches yoga, prescribing "charts" for his students. He has started a separate little school in a more modern part of Tokyo.
Bubai met us as we disembarked from the plane. He fluently speaks English, Japanese and Bengali. He will generously spend the next 3 days introducing us to his family, Tokyo and the yoga history here.
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
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- 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
- The Power of Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- What Is Namaste?
- 80 Years of "Hands to Feet Posture"
- Breathing Through the Nose Improves Some Memory Functions
- We've Forgotten Why We Eat
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Why I Teach Yoga
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted