Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't ask us, "Is Bikram Yoga the same as Ghosh Yoga?" It is a valid and interesting question, as plentiful yoga systems seek to separate themselves from the competition with novel methods and attributes. The two methods are closely related, since Bikram Choudhury learned at Ghosh's College. But there are some fundamental differences that keep the two systems from being synonymous.
First, let's look at what they have in common.
Most of the exercises in Bikram Yoga are recognizably from the Bengal region of India, where Ghosh's College is located. The previous students of Ghosh taught these same postures and exercises like Half Tortoise, Rabbit and Standing Head to Knee. And several of the postures, like Stretching, Cobra, Locust, Bow and Corpse, are traditional yoga asanas found in older texts. Notably missing from both Bikram and Ghosh yogas are exercises like Up-dog, Down-dog and Warriors One and Two which come from South India and have made their way into most vinyasa yoga styles.
Another element shared between Bikram and Ghosh yogas is the alternation of effort and rest. Each posture is held in stillness for a brief period and followed by an equal portion of relaxation. While standing, the practitioner simply stands still, though some of the older Ghosh students insisted on lying down between exercises. During postures on the floor, relaxation happens by assuming the Corpse posture. This is a distinctive element of these styles, setting them apart from the popular flowing methods that link stationary positions with fluid movements and Sun Salutations.
It can seem obvious, but both Bikram and Ghosh yogas are fundamentally designed to help the student be healthy. This is similar to all the yoga in Bengal, where the postures are done to help the organs, circulation, digestion or some other element. They generally have a therapeutic purpose. This intention can be contrasted with many vinyasa styles of yoga that originated in the performative gymnastics of Mysore. Those styles, like Ashtanga Vinyasa and its descendant "flow" methods, have become more therapeutically focused over the ensuing decades. But the origin of flowing yoga was performative.
Now, let's look at what is different between Bikram Yoga and Ghosh Yoga.
The method of Bikram's yoga is largely defined by its style of instruction, the rote utterance of prewritten commands. Teachers of the style can be judged by the quality of their "dialogue." Many paraphrases and copycats have popped up, but Bikram's original is still considered by most to be the gold standard. This rote instructional style is nowhere present in the teachings of Ghosh Yoga, where the majority of verbal instruction is simply counting the duration of each exercise.
Also central to Bikram's style is a heated room, a characteristic that finds no expression in other manifestations of Ghosh's style. In India, they turn on fans or air conditioning when the day gets hot, or they forego the scorching parts of the day altogether.
A SET SEQUENCE
The two differences above are somewhat peripheral to the essence of the methods. The irreconcilable difference between these two systems is Bikram Yoga's unchanging set of exercises. The same 26 postures are "prescribed" for every student no matter their age, ability, experience, goals or ailments. Central, indeed fundamental, to the Ghosh system is a unique prescription for each student. It would be unheard of to assign the same practices to different people, especially without learning their strengths and weaknesses.
Because Bikram Yoga is defined by its specific and repeated set of postures, and Ghosh Yoga is defined by its attention to the individual, it is impossible to conclude that Bikram Yoga and Ghosh Yoga are the same thing. They certainly share several key elements, namely their postures, the alternation of effort and relaxation, and therapeutic intent. But the defining characteristics of Bikram Yoga like rote instruction, added heat and especially a single unchanging set of exercises separate it substantially from Ghosh Yoga.
Camel Posture, Ushtrasana, has at least 300 years of history in yoga texts. But the posture changed drastically in the mid-20th century from the traditional prone position (as pictured above) to the kneeling backbend that most modern yogis will recognize.
This shift from prone to kneeling happened over the course of a few decades between 1920 and 1960. Prior, Camel Posture was a posture done on the belly. After 1960 it is done on the knees. In between, one might find instruction for either.
Below we have elaborated 8 versions of the posture that show its irregular progression through these decades.
Buddha Bose (1938):
Bose instructs the posture as in the Gheranda Samhita, lying on the belly. Like many of his other instructions, Bose draws directly from Sivananda, comparing the posture to Dhanurasana, Bow Posture. Sadly, Bose does not have a photo.
"Lie on the abdomen...bend the legs backward from the knees...with the hands firmly grasp the ankles. Now lift the head." The only difference between the two postures, he says, is "do not raise the knees and thighs off the floor" in Camel.
It is possible that these two positions are unrelated, connected only by their name. It is difficult to explain why the abdominal Camel Posture was phased out at the same time as the kneeling Camel Posture was phased in. Since about 1960, the kneeling version is ubiquitous. But the older texts including the Gheranda Samhita and those by Sivananda, Buddha Bose and Yoga Mimamsa clearly instruct the same position, lying on the belly with crossed legs. Sita Devi's book from 1934 is the outlier here, with instruction of the kneeling version in such an early decade.
Also difficult to explain is the divergence between Bose and Mukerji, who were both students of BC Ghosh in Kolkata. In the 1930s, Bose describes Camel as lying on the belly, while Mukerji does it kneeling only 30 years later in 1963.
When we practice yoga postures, we might be doing them for different reasons. We may be trying to reduce the pain in our backs, improve our balance, burn a few calories or experience a deeper spirit within. These are drastically different goals, and we can't use the same techniques to achieve them all. Hundreds of "yoga" postures and practices exist these days, and they don't all attain the same things. As you practice, think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish, and use those postures that will help. Here are the 5 different types of yoga postures:
1. Seated, meditation postures. These are the oldest, most traditional yoga postures. When the Yoga Sutras (or any text that is more than 1,000 years old) refer to asanas, this is what they mean: a seated, upright, stable and relaxed position. These positions are not used for their own benefit or to create health, but to facilitate the more internal practices of breath control and meditation. These are the quintessential "yoga postures," Lotus and Siddhasana.
2. Positions to prepare the body for seated meditation or help the body recover from it. As anyone who has tried to sit still for a long period of time knows, it is difficult for the body. A certain amount of flexibility is required in the hips and knees, and some strength and control is required in the spine. How does one build these? Several positions, usually seated, were propagated in early hathayoga to help the body prepare for sitting or recover from the imbalances that arise during sitting. These postures include Cowface, Butterfly, Cobra, Bow and Locust. These are some of the first non-Lotus postures.
3. Anti-gravity postures. Influenced by tantra, hathayoga had many practices that were designed to prevent the precious bindu from dripping out of the head and into the abdominal fire. This was thought to improve vitality, spiritual potency and life. This is where we get the practices that turn the body upside down or "draw upward" the energy, winds or fluids of the body. Headstand, Shoulderstand, Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, and the upward-focused intention of many postures are intended for this purpose.
4. For physical health. These postures and exercises are much more recent, often coming from calisthenics, gymnastics and wrestling. They build strength, flexibility and health in the body. There are lots of different positions that affect varied parts of the body, so they are vast and diverse. Kuvalayananda called these "cultural" postures. These have become central to the practice of modern yoga.
5. For demonstration and impressive accomplishment. From ancient times, yogis have been associated with the ability to do remarkable feats. In the last couple hundred years, that has increasingly meant physical demonstrations of balance, endurance, strength and flexibility. Influenced by the developments of gymnastics, acrobatics and contortion, these practices include Splits, Handstand and most arm balances. This tendency toward outwardly impressive beauty has been compounded with the rise of photography, the internet and visual communication media like Instagram. Who doesn't love to see a beautiful, impressive picture of a body?
One type of posture is not better than the others. There is no hierarchy here, though as yogis some danger lies in focusing on the body and in cultivating techniques for display. Worth noting is that postures can have drastically different purposes, goals and intentions. When we practice them, we should know what we are practicing so we can move in the right direction.
Most yoga practitioners know pranayama is the skill and art of breath control. But the breath can be a difficult animal to tame.
When we start to do breathing exercises, it can make us feel claustrophobic or anxious. Our breath is largely governed by the autonomic nervous system, and when we control it consciously we can run head-on into the body's habits and patterns. The Hathapradipika says, "like elephants and tigers, the breath must be controlled slowly." (II.15)
When practicing pranayama, sit on the ground so that your legs are crossed and your torso is upright. Sit up nice and tall. If it's impossible to sit on the ground, you can sit in a chair. Make the body still so that the breath becomes the center of your focus. Always stay relaxed. If the breathing makes you anxious or panicky, stop immediately.
Here are two simple and safe practices to start: 1) Even Counting, and 2) Alternate Nostril.
This technique is so simple that you may do it already in some yoga classes. It involves making the inhale and the exhale even in length. A great length to start with is 3 or 4 seconds each. So inhale for 3 or 4 seconds, then exhale for 3 or 4 seconds. Stay very relaxed and continue this for a few minutes. This technique has the effect of synchronizing the breath with the nervous system and the heart rate. After a minute or so you will feel quite calm, peaceful and centered.
When starting with this technique there is no need to control or count your inhales and exhales. You can let the breath come in and out naturally and relaxed. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale calmly through the left nostril. Then use the ring and pinky fingers to close the left nostril, open the right, and calmly exhale out of the right nostril. Then inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril, open the left, and calmly exhale out of the left nostril. Continue in this fashion for about 5 minutes, staying as relaxed as you can.
As mentioned above, controlling the breath can bring up anxiety or a sense of panic. If you feel this, stop immediately. The goal of these beginning breath practices is to stay absolutely calm throughout. They should give you a growing sense of well-being and peace, not anxiety. Once you can do these exercises with control, ease and calmness, you are ready to move on to more difficult practices.
"Locking the knee" is a concept in yoga that was popular in the 60s and 70s, including the styles of BKS Iyengar and Bikram Choudhury. It originally comes from weightlifting, where full extension of the knee joint and concerted contraction of the quadriceps are paramount. You will still hear weightlifters talk about "locking out" to refer to the full straightening of a joint that is under stress.
For the most part, this concept has dwindled in the yoga world due to the confusion it causes. There are at least 3 different meanings to the phrase "lock the knee," depending on what position you are in and who you're talking to. An anatomist has a different definition than a Bikram Yoga teacher.
These are the three meanings:
1. CONTRACT THE QUADRICEPS
This is the original meaning of the term as it comes from weightlifting and bodybuilding. Used in quadricep-heavy exercises like squats, "lock the knee" meant to straighten the knee as much as possible by squeezing the quadriceps with great force.
In the yoga world, this has also become a way to relax or stretch the hamstrings, since engaging the quads naturally causes the hamstrings to disengage. In addition, it is sometimes believed that engaging the quadriceps, which causes the kneecap to lift up, will protect the knee joint from hyperextension. (It won't.)
2. RESTING THE FEMUR ON THE TIBIAL SHELF
Anatomically speaking, a normal knee has the ability to hyperextend by a few degrees. It can go past the 180 degrees of a straight leg by about 4-6 degrees. When we are standing and our legs are bearing weight, we have the ability to hyperextend the knees and "rest" them on the tibial shelf. They settle back and the muscles of the leg relax, allowing us to stand for long periods of time without using much energy.
When the knees are resting in this manner, they are "locked." To unlock them, there is a specific muscle (the popliteus) that unlocks the knees before they return to normal function.
This definition of a "locked knee," which is essentially slight hyperextension, is often conflated with the first: contracting the quadriceps. Unfortunately, the combination of hyperextension and contracted quadriceps will accentuate the knee's tendency to hyperextend and possible create instability.
3. ENGAGING ALL THE MUSCLES AROUND THE KNEE
Normally, the contraction of the quadriceps is accompanied by a relaxation of the hamstrings, and vice versa. It allows for effortless movement of the knee back and forth. But this relationship can be overridden with conscious effort and control, contracting both sets of opposing muscles simultaneously. In yoga parlance this is called a bandha, a "lock."
When opposing muscle groups around a joint are consciously contracted together, the joint does not move. On the contrary, it becomes immobile and quite stable. This is often done to create stability and pressure gradients that effect the blood and heat flow in the body.
As you can see, the phrase "lock the knee" can mean a handful of different things. And it is important to note that the interpretations can conflict with one another. The first involves engaging the quadriceps while relaxing the hamstrings; the second involves relaxing both the quadriceps and the hamstrings; and the third involves engaging both the quadriceps and the hamstrings.
With the forthcoming translation and publication of Labanya Palit's book from 1955 (please support the project here), we have instruction from yet another of Bishnu Ghosh's students. Much of the information is similar to the other instructors in the tradition, reinforcing our understanding of the goals and practices.
Some practices that Labanya instructs are less common, and it is illuminating to place them in the context of history. One of these peripheral postures is Standing Hand to Toe, pictured above.
This posture involves balancing on one leg and holding the toe with the hand. It is a relatively less difficult version of the popular Standing Head to Knee, since Hand to Toe allows the body to be more upright and only one hand needs to reach forward. This makes balance a lot easier.
In 1938, Buddha Bose (pictured above, right) instructed the posture with a little twist, holding the foot with the opposite hand. This adds an element of crossing the body, which can make balance more difficult. But it allows a little twist, so it doesn't require as much flexibility in the lifted leg/hamstring.
Now, Labanya (pictured above, left) has a version where the toe is held by the hand of the same side. This is similar to the yoga traditions of South India like Krishnamacharya and Iyengar. It doesn't cross the body but requires a little more flexibility in the lifted leg.
As mentioned above, either of these positions is useful for anyone who struggles with the full expression of Standing Head to Knee. They require less strength and control, so they are great for beginners and older students.
Please support the Kickstarter campaign to translate and publish Labanya's book, as well as research the forgotten women of yoga.
Why do we, as yogis, practice physical postures?
Depending on your goals, there may be a handful of answers to this important question. The exercises may increase your flexibility, increasing your ability to move the body without pain or limitation. They may help you relax, spending a little time each day focused only on your breathing and forgetting about your stress. They may help your balance, strength, blood pressure or sleep.
At the center of all these motives is the spine, perhaps the single most important communication pathway of our body and mind. We can live without our arms and legs, but we cannot live without our spine. It provides structure, protection and support for our heart, lungs, organs and head.
Almost every signal sent from around the body, from the fingers to the toes, makes its way to the central nervous system by way of the spinal cord. And almost every command about balance, movement or breath also travels via the spine.
So every exercise, whether of the feet, arms, hips or abs is also an exercise of the spine. Even breathing exercises and meditation require communication through the spinal cord as we control our ribs, abdomen and posture. Paramhansa Yogananda called the spinal cord a "lightning rod for the divine."
Our practices should contain plenty of attention to the health and function of the spinal column (the structural part) and cord (the nervous system part). We should keep the muscles of the spine strong and mobile, as well as doing what we can to protect the bones and discs strong; plenty of forward bending, backward bending and twisting. And we should also keep our awareness on the communicative aspects of the spine: its nerves.
As one of our teachers said: "The arms and legs assist the posture. Every posture is in the spine."
If you are thinking about trying yoga or have just begun, there are a few simple things to keep in mind during your first few classes.
1. KEEP YOUR BREATHING CALM
As you do different exercises, you may notice that you are holding your breath or grunting. This isn't inherently bad or dangerous, but it illuminates tension and weakness in the body. Try to do each exercise and movement with the breath as smooth and calm as possible. Some practices will be easier than others!
2. IT'S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
It is easy to try to do everything perfectly in the first couple classes. But the practice of yoga unfolds over the course of years. Too often, new students work really hard for one or two weeks before burning out and disappearing, never to return. It is better to be calm and gentle in your practice. Let it develop slowly and you will make far more progress.
3. KEEP AN OPEN MIND
You may be asked to do things that you've never done before: unusual breathing patterns or body positions. (Luckily, as yoga has become popular more and more people are familiar with the basic practices.) Trying something new always feels awkward, but give it a chance.
4. DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT HURTS
At the beginning your body will be stiff, and some of the exercises may be painful. Err on the side of gentleness, especially if you're unsure. The teacher may instruct that the exercise is uncomfortable and that may help you relax. But if you have pain it is best to back off. You will make more progress if you can keep your body and mind relaxed. Over time your strength and flexibility will improve along with your understanding. There is no need to force it at the beginning.
5. ASK THE TEACHER
As you go through the class and the teacher asks you to do things you've never done before, there will probably be a lot of questions that pop into your mind. Am I doing this right? My such-and-such hurts, should that be happening? I don't feel anything...? When you are unsure of what you're doing or why, don't be afraid to ask the teacher after class. The teacher is there to help you learn and progress, so they will be happy to help.
There is a common belief in modern yoga that we are all one on the deepest level. It has the impact of making us feel more connected to each other while also empowering us. It comes from a tradition of belief in which the highest element, called Brahman, permeates all forms of existence including ourselves.
But there is a problem when we---ordinary people going about our lives of work and family---take this belief literally and apply it to ourselves. We live in a world ruled by our body and senses: we get hungry, we respond to emails, we watch movies and cute cat videos, we take vacations to warm beaches, we drink alcohol, etc.
While the belief that we are all one or I am divine may be true on the essential level of existence, it does not apply to the gross body or the minds (like ours) that are attached to it. It only applies to those beings who, as Ramakrishna said, have "overcome the consciousness of the physical self." Otherwise, "'I am [divine]'---this is not a wholesome attitude...He deceives others and deceives himself as well."
The problem is that we associate our self with our body and mind. This association is in our mind, where we imagine our identity and closely relate it to our physical existence. If we then add on the belief that I am divine, the complete meaning is actually My physical existence is divine.
The difficult distinction that we must make is recognizing that our true self does not lie in the body or mind. It is this self beyond the physical realm that is referred to in the phrases we are all one and I am divine.
Put your forehead on your knee!
We've all heard this instruction thousands of times. The phrase and its variations have become synonymous with correct practice of "head to knee" postures. The problem is this: the forehead touching the knee should be a result of the correct muscular usage, not the end goal.
This may be a surprise, but there is little to no benefit in touching your head to your knee. Unless you are making the argument that the head benefits from its contact with the knee (which it might, due to a nerve plexus or gland), or the knee benefits from its contact with the head, it becomes obvious that the value of the position lies somewhere else, even if the well-known signifier of the posture is the famous "head on the knee."
The distinct benefit comes from using the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) to bend the spine forward, compressing the organs, glands and intestines; and from forward- bending the neck, compressing the throat. These two foundational elements are then accentuated by what the rest of the body is doing, whether balancing on one leg as in Standing Head to Knee, maintaining external rotation of the opposite hip as in Seated Forehead to Knee, or kneeling as in Rabbit.
Sometimes the cue---to put the head on the knee---and the posture work together. Great! The muscles in the neck and abdomen engage, the spine bends forward, the throat and abdominal contents get compressed, and the head touches the knee.
But often the instruction and the posture don't work together. Our head may be able to touch the knee without the valuable engagement, bending and compression. We get the end result of the cue, so we think we are benefitting from the posture. But the important parts of the posture are left undone.
Those that struggle with "head to knee" poses will get great benefit in finding their abs and contracting them as best they can. Will their head get close enough to touch their knee? Maybe, but maybe not.
Those that are stronger should try to get their head closer to their hip than their knee. This will continue to develop their abdominal strength and compression past the point of their head on their knee.
"Touch your forehead on your knee" can be a great visual cue. However, as practitioners and teachers, we need to remember cues are attempting to make an action happen in the body. They are not the goal in and of themselves.
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.
- 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
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- What About the Hips?
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The Central Psoas
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga