"Suck your stomach in!" goes a common instruction in yoga class. This cue is present in a lot of different lineages and styles, and goes to the heart of an important conversation in the yoga world: What are we teaching?
Let's explore the meaning of this instruction, beginning with the elements involved. Namely, the "stomach" and "sucking in."
What is the stomach?
It is an organ in our digestive tract. It is high in the abdomen, just below the ribs and diaphragm. It is the first place our food goes after we chew and swallow it.
How do we suck the stomach in?
We don't. We can't. The stomach itself has muscles that help us in digesting and passing food through our system. But they are involuntary muscles that we can't consciously control. This instruction, "Suck the stomach in," refers to the stomach in a much more general and imprecise way, where "stomach" actually means "abdomen."
The muscle that pulls the abdomen in is called the transverse abdominis. It wraps around the belly like a corset, helping us breathe and stabilizing the spine when needed. If you are wondering what if feels like, exhale your breath forcefully and feel the sides of your abdomen. They will be tight and contracted. This is your transverse abdominis.
What are we actually teaching?
That brings us back to the instruction, "Suck your stomach in." If we take the instruction at its word, it is impossible. The stomach's position cannot be changed consciously nor can its muscles be contracted consciously.
The only way that this instruction makes sense is if we interpret "stomach" to mean "abdomen" and proceed to contract an abdominal muscle that "sucks in."
Also, if our students take us at our word (which I hope they do), they are learning that the stomach is something that can be "sucked in," which it is not. This is worrying, essentially teaching an inaccurate and incorrect concept to unknowing students.
The easiest of fixes
This instruction can be modified ever so slightly to become an effective cue. "Pull your abdomen in" or "pull your belly in" are both anatomically sound and they accomplish the desired result: contraction of the transverse abdominis. They remove the danger of propagating false information to our students and encourage them to learn the correct way.
With last year's publication of Calcutta Yoga by Jerome Armstrong, new light was shone on the history and progression of yoga and performance at Ghosh's College in Kolkata. We know so much more about men like Buddha Bose and Gouri Shankar Mukerji, and their contributions to the physical movements of Bengal throughout the 1900s. What is still missing, as is often the case with history, are the stories of the women.
Were there women practitioners? Yes!
Have they mostly been forgotten? Yes!
Is this about to change? Yes!
I am headed to India to start the first leg of formal research into several of the female practitioners in Bengal. Working with me is a talented writer and researcher Chandrima Pal, who lives in Kolkata and has already uncovered information about these forgotten women and the context of their lives.
As with any research project, we don't know where this will end up. Our goal is to publish a book about these women and boldly go where the stories take us. Stay tuned next week, especially on Instagram for updates about our findings. And stay tuned on this blog for longer form updates. As Chandrima said recently, "Wish us lots of luck and loads of leads!"
Any system of learning needs stages. When we are new, we need beginning lessons that teach us the basics and set us off in the right direction. Once those foundations are laid, we move on to the next level where we build on the lessons from before. And so on.
No single level encompasses both beginning and advanced lessons. The beginning levels are appropriate for those new to the path but become outmoded relatively quickly as the student familiarizes herself with the concepts and practices. Before long, the beginner needs to move on to other practices and ideas in order to continue her progress. This repeats itself at several points along the way, as we learn the lessons of our level and graduate to the next.
Consider the school system, where each grade is populated with specific knowledge that builds upon the previous level and prepares us for the next. Ideally, yoga practice does the same. This is why there are several levels in any yoga text and system. The Upanishads have the seven bhumikas or stages of development, which begin with longing and move through inquiry to purity and liberation. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras have the famous eight limbs that begin with moral behavior and proceed through the body, breath, senses and mind.
It is relatively easy to get stuck at a certain level of development. We put in a lot of work to master the lessons and practices of each stage, and it can become difficult to leave them behind and move on. We become attached to our relative mastery at that level. "I am so great at these beginning practices!" we tell ourselves. "Why would I want to move to the next level where I will have to learn new things and start the process all over again? I will be clumsy and awkward and ignorant at the next level." We begin to identify our self-worth with our ability to execute the practices of our current level, and we forsake further progress in favor of staying where we are.
Each level of our progress has the potential to be our downfall if we become stuck there and mistake it for an entire system. No mathematician would believe that algebra was all she needed to know, no matter how brilliant she was at it. A mathematician can not ignore geometry, calculus and other levels.
It is the same with yogis. We must be careful not to get stuck in the body, in the physical asana practice. Or in breathing, the senses or any other single stage, for that matter! The greatest mistake we can make is to think we have arrived at the pinnacle of our practice, and stop there.
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.
Alignment is a buzz word in yoga.
There's a general consensus that alignment is very important. At the same time, there's a shockingly small amount of discussion about what alignment actually means. Sure, we can talk about how our body should look, but is that useful? If we base our postures on what looks nice, does this forsake how the body is put together?
Often times, yes.
One of the most common forms of approaching alignment is to attempt to put the body into straight lines or perfect circles. We are visual creatures. What looks good is appealing to us. However, when it comes to working with the body, we should realize that we're not necessarily made to be in straight lines or perfect circles. More importantly, we can develop our practice in a profound way if we stop worrying about the visual outcome, and think more about the internal actions. In a physical practice, we should consider something much deeper than what we look like.
To approach alignment in this way, we should consider the following:
If we can answer these questions, our understanding of alignment and our physical practice will develop in a profound way.
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
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.
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