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.
Ghosh Yoga Teacher Training is four weeks long without stopping. Each day we arise early to do pranayama (breathing) practice, and the day is filled with lecture, discussion, practice and teaching. It is an all-consuming, immersive experience, and it is intended to be that way.
We believe in the immersive approach as opposed to the more sparse (and, admittedly, convenient) approach of weekends or short sessions.
The mind is driven by habits, and the strongest habits we have are what we call everyday life. This includes when we get up, what we eat, where we go, what we do, and most importantly, what we think. Yoga practice is above all things a reconfiguring of the habits of the mind. So if we were to spend a day or two in practice and study only to be followed by an entire week of our usual daily habits, the progress made in practice would be undone.
The best way to make lasting change in the mind is to undertake new habits for long enough that they stick. Inevitably, we come face to face with our habits after about a week of committed practice. The body and mind resist the transformation, seeking their old, comfortable ways. We feel exhausted and at the end of our rope.
But when we persist through this stage, the mind begins to relinquish its old habits and identities. This is when yogis talk about finding "new reservoirs of strength" or "powers I didn't even know I had." In the simplest terms, this is the mind becoming willing to change, especially in terms of who we think we are.
Many yoga schools offer the convenience of weekend trainings or a few days per month. There is value in these because they allow people to learn and study while still tending to the necessities of daily life like work and family.
But we are firm believers that the practice of yoga is one of recognizing the habits of the mind on the way to changing them. For this to occur, we need to spend significant time committed to practice and study, until our ingrained mental ruts reveal themselves.
Sometimes yogis talk about "stuck energy" or "moving the energy" of the body. According to some yogic texts, especially in hathayoga, there are subtle channels in the body along which energy moves. It is difficult to determine whether these channels are intended to be purely mental visualizations, descriptions of what we call the nervous system today, or a separate entity altogether. The details of this vast topic are best saved for another time, but here are 5 postures and exercises that are great and moving and affecting the energy:
1. TWISTING TRIANGLE
Pictured above, this posture goes right to the areas where most of us feel "stuck," the chest, the hips and the breath. By bending forward and then twisting the body, the posture feels like it makes everything tight. The trick is to release tension with short, calm breaths and a relaxed face. This posture also challenges the balance, which focuses the mind and enables a deeper experience.
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
A huge amount of the sensory and motor processing power of our brain is dedicated to the hands. It is necessary for us to function as we do in the world, picking up objects of various shapes and sizes, carrying things, judging their texture and temperature. But it means that at any given time, the brain has more of its attention focused on our hands than it does on, say, our back.
This function of your brain is represented by the picture above, called the Homunculus. It represents the amount of the brain's sensory power that is dedicated to each part of the body, with greater attention displayed by larger features. The results end up being almost obvious, with a lot of the brain's sensory attention focused on the lips and tongue, eyes and ears, genitals, hands and feet. These are the most sensitive parts of the body.
What does this mean for us as yogis?
In general, it means that it's easy for us to think about our hands. We may be doing an exercise that is focused on the spine, but we will wonder, "What do I do with my hands?" Or while we are balancing or breathing, "How should I hold my hands?" It is easy for our brains to answer this call, since it likes to put its attention on the hands.
But this makes it harder to focus on things---parts of the body or mind---that are not the hands. It is difficult to take the attention away from the hands and put it on the spine or abdomen, or knees.
Next time you do (or teach) a posture, check how much of your focus you put on the hands, their grip and their position. Then ask yourself if they are the central focus of the exercise. See if you can move your attention and effort away from the hands to the part that is most important for each practice. It can be challenging at first, but tremendously beneficial.
Knowledge is power. Our understanding of the world around us and our place in it directly affects our ability to function effectively and attain happiness or success (or both), or whatever it is that we seek. As a teacher you pass information and the ability to think to your students, making them more powerful. The better you are as a teacher and the more knowledge you provide, the more powerful your students will become.
This power dynamic can create tension between the teacher and student. Many teachers are afraid of the power that the student will gain if they offer all their knowledge. Won't the student then be equal to the teacher? Or perhaps even better? So the teacher limits the knowledge they offer, only providing part of the information to prevent the student from rising too high. Or they may belittle their students, criticizing and insulting them to remind the students how low they are. This keeps the student---in the teacher's mind, at least---below the teacher.
How do we avoid this? By embracing the possibility that our students will become greater than us. Hoping for it. The value of our students is not in the way they build us up, looking up to us admiringly as all-knowing gurus. The value of our students is the way they are individuals with unique experiences, minds and ability to think. Their value is the same as ours, the same as anyone's, to recognize the things that need to be done to make the world better. To have the knowledge and courage to pursue them.
One of our favorite quotations is credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The greatest way to honor one's teacher is to obliterate him." This contains a great lesson for the student and the teacher. The goal of both parties is the transfer of knowledge and understanding, which is not to be confused with doing things the way they've always been done.
A successful student will be able to think independently of the teacher. A successful teacher will embrace and encourage that independence.
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.
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.
The holiday season is here and that means lots of gatherings, food, drink and gift-giving. So many cookies and cakes, rich meats and huge meals. Not to mention the relatively high level of stress that comes with the responsibility of gift-giving, being friendly for long periods of time, lack of sleep from late nights and travel.
How do we avoid losing ourselves during this time when the routines are so different and the discipline that we cultivate during the rest of the year gets discarded for a few weeks of cultural tradition? The answer is non-attachment.
Non-attachment can seem like a strange and complicated concept, but its essence is simply a knowledge of who we really are. We are deep, calm beings at the core, unswayed by the constant changes of the outside world. But we are constantly drawn outward into the realm of our senses where we latch onto sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and even ideas. We become absorbed in these sensations and activities and think that that is who we truly are. Ok, enough philosophy for now...
Next time you are having a cookie (or something delicious), notice the pleasure you experience in the taste. This is a reaction of your senses and does not impact your true self. When you get a great gift, realize that it may bring you pleasure or make your life a little easier. But it does not impact your true self.
Yogically speaking, the detriment in eating rich foods and accepting gifts is not in the way that our health suffers or we need to buy more batteries. It is the way in which we derive pleasure via the senses---which everyone loves!---and then think that our truest self is there in the senses. That mistake is the essence of all yogic practice.
So this holiday season take a moment or two to separate yourself from your senses and your experiences of pleasure. Recognize the pleasure and then recognize that it is not who you truly are!
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.
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
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Lock the Knee History
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Hips?
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- What About the Women?!
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Yoga Cure - A Look Through Bishnu's Eyes
- The Gheranda Samhita
- 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"
- Alignment Doesn't Mean "In Straight Lines"
- Breathing Through the Nose Improves Some Memory Functions
- We've Forgotten Why We Eat
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Wind Removing Posture
- Why I Teach Yoga
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted