Over the past two months, we have uprooted our lives, moving out of a house that's been in my family for decades and into a small apartment that will enable us to be more mobile. Throughout the process I have been reminded of 3 disparate teachings from 3 different sources that all point to the same idea: that a yogi becomes invisible.
We often talk about "drawing toward" and "pushing away," so much that it was even the topic of a blog last year. When we are compelled to draw things toward us, whether they are objects, money or the attention of others, we fortify the constructs of our personality and take ourselves further from liberation (the essential, non-constructed version of the self). These things make us bigger, sometimes literally and sometimes theoretically. As we remove these constructs, the yogi becomes "smaller" until she approaches invisibility.
Looking back into history, the yogasutras state that suffering comes from pairs of opposites (2:48), including hot and cold, good and bad, etc. When we adhere to the pairs of opposites, swinging from happy to sad and back again, we are like a tight-rope walker who is wobbling violently from side to side. As we reduce our movement from side to side, we approach stillness in the middle, which from the outside can seem like nothing is happening. But the stillness reveals deeper movement that was imperceptible when the action was bigger. The more centered the yogi becomes, the more still she is. She approaches invisibility through her lack of drastic shifts.
Most literally, this was said to us by Tony Sanchez, one of our teachers. During our time with him, he told us that "a yogi becomes transparent, almost invisible." This is contrary to our culture, in which we become more visible and famous as success increases. The yogi, on the other hand, does not pursue worldly gain or the admiration of others. Quite the opposite. As the yogi progresses, she has less and is attached to less.
So I ask you: Do you draw things toward yourself? Do you embrace the pairs of opposites? Do you pursue the admiration of others? Do you make yourself still? Are you invisible?
It may seem like a simple and obvious question: what are we really teaching? But if we look a little deeper, we may find that our intentions can conflict with what we are teaching our students.
The simplest answer to this question for modern Western yogis is: asana, postures. We teach physical practices for the health benefits of mobility and flexibility, strength, balance and inversion. We also teach breathing, which can slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure and reduce stress. The physical, mental and nervous system benefits of yoga practice are real, and they are increasingly central to the yoga culture.
This only creates an ideological conflict when we claim to be teaching anything like traditional yoga. The systems of yoga are many, but prior to a few hundred years ago most were dedicated to the subordination of the body and senses in favor of the realization of the true nature of the self.
Do you see the conflict between these two ideas? When we practice modern physical yoga, it is often alongside confidence-building rhetoric that values personal experience. "Have faith in yourself," "You are your own best teacher," we may tell our students. These things build our identification with our bodies and the physical practices, working against the progress of dis-identifying with the body. So, in a traditional sense, a physically-focused practice centered on accomplishing postures, and even health, can work against the ideals of yoga.
Admittedly, this is complicated. We are not suggesting that you change the way you teach or the way you approach your practice. But it is worth noting some of the little conflicts and paradoxes that arise in our yoga. These conflicts shed light on our assumptions and allow us to refine our view of ourselves and the world.
As we deepen our practice and study of yoga, the sheer volume of practices and traditions can be overwhelming. One solution is to stick to the teachings of one tradition and explore them deeply. Even so, I am often curious about why different traditions may have such disparate teachings, all called yoga.
Looking back in history can help clarify the purpose of many practices. We were recently asked if there was ever a point when all yoga was unified around a single set of teachings. Not to my knowledge, unless we go all the way back to the first documented explanation of yoga in the Katha Upanishad, from about 2,500 years ago:
"When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go."
No mention of postures, health, nutrition, stress or flexibility. Only the senses, the mind, the intellect, and a unitive state that arises when they are still.
The Katha Upanishad, Part 2, Chapter 2, Verse 10-11.
(This post originally published 2/9/2017)
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.
This verse from the yogasutras is one of the easiest to understand, and one of the most powerful to put into practice. It can seem overly simple to promote qualities such as friendliness and kindness, but it helps to think about what we are replacing with these qualities.
With friendliness we are replacing competition, the sense that each person is an enemy. When we feel that others are our enemies, we isolate ourselves and retreat to xenophobia, the fear and mistrust of anything that is different from us. The more we perceive others as different, the more we fear them.
Friendliness, on the other hand, connects us with others. It frees us from fear and allows us to see more clearly. Sure, there are people in this world to fear and mistrust, but most people are just like us. Cultivating friendliness opens us up to the possibility of growth, connection and change.
With kindness we are replacing selfishness and mistrust, both of which lead to meanness. No one wants to be "mean", it is a product of our own fear of not having enough or not getting our due. When we perceive others as infringing upon our rightful space, credit, food or work, we act meanly toward them.
To a yogi, the big problem with being mean is that it affects us more than it affects others. It plants seeds of anger, fear and animosity within us, and those seeds will bloom eventually. The more we cultivate meanness, the more we poison our own minds. Kindness is a wonderfully simple way to combat this situation. Treat everyone with kindness, not just those who deserve it. By doing so, we plant seeds of generosity, openness and love, and those seeds will bloom too.
INDIFFERENCE TOWARD HAPPINESS, VICE & VIRTUE
The final instruction of this verse is more complicated. Why would we want to be indifferent toward happiness? Or vice? Or virtue?
According to the yogis, some of the roots of our suffering are our attraction to pleasure and our aversion to pain. These are called raga (attraction) and dvesha (aversion). We enjoy the pleasure that we get from a compliment, attention, success, new shoes or a text message, and we become attracted to that pleasure. Our thoughts and actions are soon directed toward repeating the pleasure, and our existence begins to feel empty whenever we are not experiencing pleasure. For this reason, the yogis say that even pleasure is pain.
Once we realize that pleasure and our attraction to it actually brings us more suffering, we begin to detach from the attraction. Gradually we become indifferent toward the ideas of happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, and vice and virtue. This process takes a good teacher and a long time.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the primary sources of Indian spirituality. It is one of the three sacred texts of Vedanta, along with the Upanishads (the last books of the Vedas) and the Brahma Sutras (an explanation of the Upanishads). Vedantic philosophy argues that all of the universe is a manifestation of a single, infinite consciousness called Brahman. Out of Brahman come all people, places and things. Only Brahman is real and permanent. This is the belief of Advaita (Non-dual) Vedanta.
Within the Bhagavad Gita are explanations of many different "yogas." 17 of the 18 chapters have the word "yoga" in the title, with each chapter expounding on a different one. These range from Samkhya Yoga to Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, not to mention other more complex ones like Raja-Vidya-Raja-Guhya Yoga.
This abundance of seemingly different "yogas" can lead to confusion. Are there dozens or hundreds of yogas? Is there a unifying philosophy or belief that one can point to as yoga?
According to Vedantic belief, since all beings and existence are manifest from a single consciousness, this diversity is possible even within a single entity. One can choose any form of devotion and even express devotion to diverse "Gods," all of which are nothing more than the many names and forms of Brahman. The great diversity exists within a single consciousness.
This philosophy is not to be confused with the yoga of the Yogasutras by Patanjali, a system based on the Samkhya philosophy. Samkhya philosophy is dual, believing that two independently real entities exist: consciousness and matter. These are called purusha and prakriti. Vedanta is a monistic philosophy while Yoga (of the Yogasutras) is dualistic.
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
There are a couple different ways that forward bending postures --- including Paschimottanasana, the seated forward bend --- are taught.
Some teach the posture with the back as flat as possible, tilting the pelvis forward significantly, reaching the head toward the feet and perhaps even pulling with the arms. This method (pictured to the left) has become more popular in recent decades with the rise of yoga competitions, yoga photography and the integration of contortion into yoga practice.
The other way to execute the posture is to allow the spine to bend forward, perhaps even encouraging it, and placing the head down on the legs near the knees. This is what one might call the "traditional" way to execute the posture. There is evidence for this method in historic yoga texts, ample precedent in the Ghosh lineage, and good reason for it in the body's anatomy.
Paschimottanasana is one of the oldest postures in the yoga canon, dating back at least 500 years. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the foundational texts of hathayoga from about 1500 CE, this posture is instructed as follows: "when one sits with his forehead resting on the thighs, it is called Paschimottanasana."
Last but not least, there is good anatomical reason for bending the spine in this posture, as opposed to straightening it and reaching the head toward the feet.
On the back of the body is a path of connected tissues called the Superficial Backline of fascia. It extends from the toes across the bottoms of the feet, up the backs of the legs across the back of the pelvis, up the back of the spine and neck, and over the top of the skull (pictured left).
The physical purpose of Paschimottanasana is to lengthen the back of the body. Its name even means "backside stretch." This includes the feet and calves, the hamstrings, the entire spine and the neck. You can clearly see the connected nature of all these parts in the fascia of the backside. This is why the posture intensifies when you pull your toes back or drop your head. Both actions affect the entire backside of the body.
If we practice this posture with a flat spine, we shorten the backside from the pelvis to the head, losing half of the posture and putting extra pressure on the lower half. This lengthens the hamstrings extremely, sometimes leading to hamstring or hip injury, while neglecting length in the spine and the integration of the body as a whole.
It is possible that forward bending can be detrimental to bulging, herniated or degenerated discs in the lower spine. In these cases, it is best to avoid bending the spine forward, even skipping postures like Paschimottanasa altogether.
Eagle Posture---Garudasana---is achieved by winding the legs and arms around each other.
Buddha Bose teaches two versions of Eagle. The first, for beginners, involves wrapping only the legs (pictured above left). The arms are relatively uninvolved, allowing the practitioner to focus on balance in this tricky position. The second version includes the arms, twisting them together while the legs are still locked on themselves (pictured above right).
The origin of its name, Garuda, is somewhat of a mystery. It is hard to imagine any sort of eagle or bird when looking at the shape of the posture. Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji sheds a little light on it. “Garudasana is named after Garuda, the Indian mythological bird. Garuda, the king of birds, has a trick of attacking in a coiled form. Maybe that is why the asana is named as it is."
The word garuda also means eagle in Sanskrit. Most often, this posture is called Eagle.
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
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth