Over the last few months I’ve been compiling materials to research the forgotten women of yoga. Through work in Kolkata, I came to know of a few names of women, some quite famous, who today are completely forgotten. The questions started piling up— why do so many women do yoga when it was thrust into the modern age largely (at least publicly) by men.
Through gathering texts and doing interviews, the layers of complexity grew.
One unanticipated layer is the talk of beauty when it comes to women and yoga. This isn't found in posture manuals for men, and isn’t about “radiance” or something that could be referenced in Haṭha texts. This is talk of things like “perfect breasts” and “thin waists”.
This made me think of my own journey in the yoga studio so far. The "no food is good food" was certainly a part of the community. I remember being complimented the most in class when I was incredibly sick with pneumonia and hadn't been able to keep any food but applesauce down.
Around that same time I was also injured. My hamstring was tearing but I was locking out my standing bow. (Worth it? No.)
Since then I stopped wanting to be injured and took up weight training. When my new trainer gave me 15 pushups as a warm up I balked! I couldn’t do one, yet I was one of the strongest at my yoga studio.
I have since gained 15lbs. And with it, the strength to run many miles, move hundreds of pounds, do pull-ups, (more than 15) pushups and most importantly, have the strength to stay injury free.
Since talking about injuries in yoga studios around the world, we've gotten a variety of responses. Some burst into tears and ask, “So it shouldn’t hurt? I’ve spent a decade thinking it was supposed to.” Some just shake their heads, acknowledge how obvious it is that a "healing" practice shouldn’t injure the body. Others though, respond with the predictable, yet disappointing response of, “Well I’m not injured. You weren’t doing it right.” Denial is powerful.
All of this combined has me thinking. Are we trying to be healthy or beautiful? Who is deciding this? Do we actually know what we’re doing?
We are here in London, immersed in the study of Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. It is intense so far, with nearly every waking hour spent in reading, study or practice of some sort. A great relief from the constant reading is our study of the Bengali language. We chose this because it is the language spoken in Kolkata, where Ghosh's College is located. Every time we are in India, we pick up a little bit---we know how to say "how are you?", "go straight", "egg" and "french toast"!---but of course we wish we knew more. So we have embarked into proper study of the language, both reading and speaking.
The Bengali language, Bangla বাংলা, has its own alphabet. Which means that the first step is figuring out the sounds of each letter as well as the shape. Needless to say, the letters are quite different from the alphabet used in English, so we have to regress to the level of schoolchildren, drawing shapes over and over again on notepaper until we get it right. This is surprisingly calming and refreshing, especially after studying complex academic arguments in our other courses. In Bangla we get to be artists.
To an English speaker, there are some elements of Bangla that are quite confusing. For example, each consonant contains a vowel within it! So the letter 'n' is not just a consonant, but also contains a sound after, making it 'na'. This is true of all the letters, so the alphabet is made up of 'ka' 'ga' 'na' 'ma' 'ba', etc. If that seems confounding, welcome to the club! Luckily for us, we studied a bit of Sanskrit a couple years ago, and Sanskrit follows the same basic rules. So this wasn't new to us, which was a relief.
Once we get around the inherent differences in the logic of the language, it is really just a matter of getting used to the words, sounds and structures. I try to imagine myself as a 3 year old, listening to the sounds and repeating them until they work. I guess the difference here is that 3 year olds don't have an exam at the end of the term.
Bangla is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, but it is often overshadowed by its fellow Indic language, Hindi. Hindi is more commonly used, but not by much. So we hope that improving our knowledge of Bangla will help us in our research---since the Indian libraries are full of books in Indic languages---as well as with our relationships and communication while we're in Kolkata.
Just for fun...some Sanskrit letters are similar to Bangla, some are different. Here are a few. On the left is Sanskrit, the right is Bangla.
a आ আ
ma म ম
na न ন
ba ब ব
la ल ল
ka क ক
ga ग গ
ha ह হ
pa प প
pha फ ফ
tha थ থ
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment, as Ida writes in a new blog.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
Anyone who has attended one of our classes knows we place great importance on knowing why we are doing what we're doing, whether it is stretching, strengthening, breathing, meditating or eating french fries. This also applies to being a teacher. Why do we/you teach yoga? What do we set out to accomplish, what do we actually accomplish, and is there any discrepancy between those two that can be improved?
We encourage you to respond or comment with your thoughts.
As I search my own motivations for teaching, I settle on a relatively simple answer: peace and happiness. These are the things I hope to bring to any students. My goal is at least to point them in the right direction.
It will come as no surprise that human existence is interwoven with suffering. Some suffering comes in the shape of desire: wanting things that we do not have and feeling that lack acutely. Some comes in the shape of fear: seeing the possibility for suffering and dreading it. Some comes as depression or stress, and some comes as outright physical pain in the body.
More than anything else I've experienced, the teachings and practices of yoga have reduced my suffering. Many physical pains have diminished, but mostly my mental state has improved, bringing contentment where there was dissatisfaction and peace where there was stress. I have become happier. These are the reasons I study and practice yoga; it has made my life better.
All around I interact with people who suffer because they are swept up in the chaos of the senses and mind. I talk with people who have goals and desires that bring them pain instead of happiness. And I see people who have injuries or physical pain in their bodies. Through it all, I see how the teachings of yoga could really help to ease the suffering of so many people.
The overwhelming activity and power of the mind is common in all humans. It is full of desire and fear, stress and imbalance. Learning about the mind and recognizing its tendencies is one of the fundamental principles of yoga. Over time we can see the activities of the mind as what they are instead of mistaking them for the deepest nature of ourselves.
All this is why I teach yoga. I see suffering that has a remedy. I would remiss if I did nothing. So I am compelled to teach.
It is Practice Week this week, and we are in Pennsylvania. The days are intense and draining: 5 hours of practice and another 3 hours of discussion. It is an all-out extravaganza for the body and mind. Needless to say, the end of the day finds us exhausted, and it only compounds over the course of the week.
But I have always been a morning person, and no matter how tired I am, I usually wake up early. I say this with no sense of pride; I would often choose to sleep later if I could. But once my internal clock decides it’s time to wake up, there is no way of returning to rest. So I get up.
My favorite thing to do in the morning, aside from doing breathing practices, is organize information. It is so quiet and peaceful, and my mind is full of new connections that were generated while I slept. I love to write down little bits of information that I’ve learned and questions I have. I read and research to find answers to my questions. Sometimes I gain a new sense of understanding.
This morning, I sat in the yoga room here in Pennsylvania before anyone else was up. I gathered pictures and bits of info and placed them into a slide presentation. I rearranged their order until a coherent story appeared. I looked up, saw myself in the mirror and realized that this is a pattern with me: rise early and organize information.
As the summer settles in, our teaching schedule lightens up. Ida and I don't travel as much or teach as many workshops during the warm months of the year. Inevitably this time away from teaching leads me to explore new areas of study and curiosity.
During the fall, winter and spring our schedule can be overwhelming and it is difficult to embrace new ideas. I may have an interesting conversation, learn about a new book or get a mind-boggling question that sparks my spirit of inquiry. But due to the requirements of travel and teaching those inquiries get put on hold until a later date. The procrastination and patience are important as we focus on the tasks at hand, but they can be frustrating too. Now, with the summer, the time has arrived to explore.
The questions arise in me again and again: How can I be a good yogi and also a good person? Where is the balance between learning, knowing and teaching? How can I take responsibility for myself, my communities and environment while still staying humble?
These are the questions that agitate me on a daily basis. I welcome any of your thoughts or insights.
I recently added fasting to my yoga practice. For one day each week I don't eat. It's not for losing weight, to look different or even for health purposes of any sort. I am fasting to clarify my relationship between my body and mind and to understand how what I eat affects both.
In yogic teachings, the practice of fasting can be associated with pranayama (energy control) and pratyahara (sensory control). Pranayama is most often connected with breathing since it is such an elemental part of our existence. (I wouldn't live long if I stopped breathing.) Eating too is a deeply-rooted part of my physical existence, so its pull on my consciousness is strong. As pranayama practice develops, it naturally evolves from the breath toward eating and other "essential" life-functions.
Fasting is also part of pratyahara, the practice of looking at my sensory input and how it affects the way I perceive the world (and myself). My sense of taste is obviously related to food, and our culture has increasingly turned toward foods that stimulate my taste receptors, so much that I often consume food for the way it stimulates my mouth (and brain). When I control my food intake, I quickly come face to face with the powerful connections between my senses (in this case, taste) and my reality.
Controlling the energy and senses is hard, so fasting is hard. Quite literally it challenges my constructed perceptions of who I am. This is why dieting and food control is often a lost cause. The yogis consider fasting a relatively advanced form of control, so it makes sense when so many people struggle with it.
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?
We are moving, ridding ourselves of many possessions that we've accumulated over the years, including the house we've lived in for a decade.
It is surreal to gather all of our belongings into one room, one duffel bag, one truck. To look into the back of a moving truck and see all of our worldly possessions...there are our books, packed away in boxes; there is our bed, wrapped in plastic; there are the lamps that sit by the bed, awkwardly resting on top so they don't break. It is a powerful reminder of how separate we are from the things we own, even though we often think of those things as inherent to our identity.
The yogis would say, quite simply, "possessions are not the self." It seems obvious when you say it like that. Of course my possessions are not who I am. But when my possessions are separated from their usual place in my life, I feel their pull acutely. Especially the house itself.
The house has given me a place to sleep, study, think, write, read, relax and play with our dogs. It has gradually become inextricable from the way I live and even the person I am. It may be inevitable, but as a yogi I see the danger there. And as we pack up our belongings and wave goodbye to the house, I feel the uncertainty within me: "who am I now?"
Of course, on the deepest levels I am no different than I was a day ago or a month ago or, depending on your beliefs, since the beginning of time. But my worldly, human life is undergoing a huge change. It is a challenge for me as a yogi, to navigate this with at least part of my mind on my unchanging, deepest, truest self even as my entire outer world transforms.
As a yoga teacher I often hear students say that they fall asleep in Shavasana. This is a pretty common thing. We hear the snoring of one or more students quite clearly as they break the silence of relaxation at the end of a practice.
As a practitioner, this isn’t something that I often struggle with. I am usually able to relax quite deeply without actually falling asleep. Recently, however, I’ve personally experienced this very phenomenon.
A few months ago, Scott and I took an intense course. We began at 4:30am everyday (even on our day off!) and ended around 10pm. The day was pretty much spoken for, although I would sometimes catch a 10 minute nap when I had the chance. After keeping up this schedule for a few weeks, I was exhausted. At around the same time in the course we started adding in Yoga Nidra, or long and deep relaxation. I inevitably would fall asleep. Of course I would try not to, but my system was tired and that was all there was to it.
More recently, my life has been extremely busy with commitments. I definitely notice this throughout the days as my body is achy and my mind is slow. But where I notice it the most is in pranayama practice.
Pranayama is most often thought of as a breath control practice, but it is even subtler. In English, we don’t have a great translation for “prana” so it becomes easiest to think of this in terms of breath, but it is the practice of working with your life-force energy.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to do pranayama. I made it through most of my usual routine which consists of three rounds of Kapalbhati and ten or more rounds of Alternate Nostril with long retentions, followed by either Even Count or meditation.
Typically when I practice, I begin to become very aware of energy in-between my eyebrows as I sit upright and breathe. Yesterday however, I became aware of energy, yes, but that energy was very tired. After finishing the practice, instead of continuing on with my day, I laid down and slept for 45 minutes.
The moral of the story is if you are tired it means you need to sleep! If you fall asleep in Shavasana, good! If you do pranayama and want to sleep, go for it. Ideally, we will lead a balanced life and we will get the rest we need. But in times when that’s not the case, we should take rest when we can.
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.
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Origins of Standing Bow
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- Through Bishnu's Eyes
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice