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.
The next Ghosh’s Yoga College teacher training starts next Monday in Kolkata!
This time there will be students attending from the US, Sweden and Taiwan. This is the fifth training since Ghosh’s College opened its doors to Westerners in an official way. Those coming for training will live at the school in the heart of North Kolkata for three weeks.
They will study one-to-one prescriptive yoga with Muktamala Mitra, granddaughter of Bishnu Ghosh. Most of the curriculum is focused on therapeutic exercises, and what to prescribe to “patients” looking to yoga for physical therapy. It’s a complete change in perspective for those of us used to a Western 'yoga class' setting.
Along with getting the attendees settled into GYC, I (Ida) will be using the week to continue helping with research. I will be there with Jerome Armstrong, who has been diligently researching the Ghosh lineage for the past several years. (Side note, for the past 6 months I’ve been editing his book Calcutta Yoga which will be out in the next few months! Stay tuned!) We plan to visit people and places we’ve been before, as well as explore some new territory.
There is a lot of discussion and disagreement about the question: Is yoga a religion?
Many answer by saying yoga is "spiritual" but not "religious." There continue to be cultural movements to secularize yoga by taking away any direct mentions of worship or deities. And there are even combinations of yoga with non-Hindu religions, as old as the Allah Upanishad and as new as Christian Yoga.
Let's take a look at the meaning of these words: spiritual and religious. And also at some history of yoga teachings and texts to see if we can find clues.
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Webster dictionary defines religion as "the service and worship of God or the supernatural." That is pretty broad, but it specifies that a system is religious when it acknowledges a God figure or some supernatural force worthy of worship.
The word spiritual is defined as "of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit." Other definitions include "relating to sacred matters," which has a distinctly religious overtone. Another definition comes right out and makes the connection, saying spiritual means "concerned with religious values."
Already for me the distinction between religious and spiritual seems like a stretch, like perhaps we are trying to make a distinction where none really exists.
How does yoga fit into these definitions? Do the teachings of yoga recognize a God or supernatural being/force? Does yoga affect the spirit?
For answers to these questions, I looked at two pivotal texts of yoga: The Yogasutras by Patanjali and the Yoga Yajnavalkya. The former is well-known. The latter is one of the most quoted texts by later yoga works.
The very beginning of the Yogasutras defines yoga as the "cessation of the turnings of thought." (1) No mention here of any god or supernatural power. No mention of the spirit either. According to this definition, yoga is a mental process having to do with our thought processes.
The next verse complicates things a little. "When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer of the world." (2) Here we have the blatant use of "spirit," and we are thrown into the whirlwind of trying to understand and explain what that may be. But there is still no direct mention of a higher power.
A few verses later we learn about Ishvara, the Lord of Yoga.
"Cessation of thought may also come from dedication to the Lord of Yoga. The Lord of Yoga is a distinct form of spirit unaffected by the forces of corruption, by actions, by the fruits of action, or by subliminal intentions. In the Lord of Yoga is the incomparable seed of omniscience. Being unconditioned by time, he is the teacher of even the ancient teachers." (3)
This passage directly refers to an omniscient supernatural being who is unaffected by time. It certainly falls under the definition of religion by encouraging the 'service and worship,' or as the Yogasutras put it---'dedication'---to a god figure.
This text is the origin of the oft-repeated definition of yoga: "Yoga is...the union of the individual self and the supreme self." (4) Here we have the ambiguous notion of the "supreme self." Is it a figment of our imagination, the best version of ourselves, or a supernatural entity of which our human self is part?
This definition often gets relayed as "union of the individual self with the universal self," which has a lot more supernatural meaning in it: We are all one. To me, this definition wobbles on the edge of religion, depending on how you choose to interpret the "supreme/universal self" and whether you consider that to be a supernatural entity.
Some of the gray area is clarified if we look earlier in the text to some of the first verses.
"...Meditating in his heart with one-pointed concentration upon Narayana (the Divine), the refuge of the universe, residing in the heard of all beings in all worlds, the source of this universe, worthy to be meditated upon by yogis, unattached, blissful, immortal, eternal, omnipresent, and the ruler of the senses..." (5)
Here we have distinct reference to "the divine," a supernatural being who is the "source of the universe." While worship is not specifically instructed, we are advised that this "immortal, omnipresent" divine is "worthy to be meditated upon." To me, this is quintessential religion.
Depending on where we look and how narrow our gaze is, we can convince ourselves that yoga is not a worship-centric religion that looks to a supernatural being. But as our view starts to expand even within the same texts, there are definite religious elements: Timeless, omniscient beings who are the source of the universe. So, is yoga a religion? In a word, yes.
1. Patanjali, Yogasutras, 1.2
2. Patanjali, Yogasutras, 1.3
3. Patanjali, Yogasutras, 1.23-26
4. Yoga Yajnavalkya, chapter 1, verses 43-45
5. Yoga Yajnavalkya, chapter 1, verses 9-19
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.
"The Locust Pose has the same health effect as Bhujangasana [Cobra Pose]. However, it emphasizes the lower parts of the spine, the sacrum and the hips. You could call this Purna-Bhujangasana (Full Cobra Pose). Some experts are of the opinion that after practicing Bhujangasana twice one must practice Shalabhasana once. Others say practice Bhujangasana one week and then one week of Shalabhasana." (p.37)
From 84 Yoga Asanas by Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji.
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