As teachers, we are in service of the transmission of knowledge. Our goal is to acquire knowledge in order to pass it on to our students. When our students gain that knowledge and can hold it on their own, we have succeeded.
As we go through this process of acquiring knowledge and passing it on, we must remember that knowledge itself is not ours. Once we learn something, we do not own it. It is not ours to hold onto at the expense of others.
We are in service of knowledge. Knowledge is not in service of us.
Our ego doesn't always like the process of teaching. The ego easily jumps in and says, "Wait! I'm the teacher, I'm in charge. This is my class, my system, my teachings." While this might not be conscious or obvious, we might notice it as twinges of self doubt, or fear that we will become less valuable if our students advance too far.
This becomes an inner battle for teachers, one that needs to be handled with great care. We must remember our very job is to give to our students. When our students understand what we've taught them and hold that same knowledge, we must celebrate this. This is what it means to teach.
It can be difficult to know what is real in this world. The methods of yoga, spirituality and science have developed to explore this question. Sometimes they come to the same answers, but sometimes they contradict.
As yoga teachers, we are often confronted with the problems of: 'Why do we do these things?' and 'What is right?' We usually look in three places to find answers: tradition, science and personal experience.
We at Ghosh Yoga are fascinated with tradition, and we have researched it, studied it, lectured on it and challenged it. We have written about the relationship of oldness and tradition, the Spirit of Tradition, and the sometimes misleading value of tradition.
With regards to these questions---what is real? and what is worth learning?---tradition plays an important role in yoga. Many of us are drawn to yoga because of its ancientness, sacredness and gravity. And the idea of lineage, teaching in the same way as you were taught, is a time-worn Indian method that has come to the West with yoga. At its best, a lineage links modern students with ancient teachers and sages.
We must take these things seriously. What did our teachers think and what did they teach?If we look in older texts, what was being taught hundreds or thousands of years ago? Most importantly, how do these apply to modernity? Can we extrapolate our own situations, thoughts and perspectives from ancient teachings?
In the past few centuries, scientific methods have developed that are centered around the reliability and repeatability outcomes. The sciences have improved our understanding of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and neurology among other things. We can apply this knowledge to the body and mind in yoga practice. But it can sometimes come into conflict with traditional understanding.
For example, humans did not know the intricacies of bodily anatomy until the 15th century CE. This is clearly depicted in art from earlier, where the body is only really understood by looking from the outside. Take this one step further inward, to the functioning of breathing, energy or the nervous system. These things have come into focus even more recently in human history.
Therefore, when we look to 'tradition' for physical, anatomical or physiological methods, we must take great care. How does the ancient understanding line up with modern understanding? If there is a discrepancy, is it clear where, why or when that may have occurred? And which do we trust?
(For the past few decades, increasing numbers of scientific studies are being done on the practices of yoga. Check out Pure Action.)
It may seem obvious to say, but all of these practices and traditions of yoga are intended to be put to use by actual living humans, like us. They only come to life when they are studied and executed. Those experiences we have and the inner knowledge we gain are hugely valuable, and one might argue that they are the central purpose of it all.
On the other hand, the root of all the spiritual traditions is that our ordinary knowledge and perception are lacking and misleading. We must look deeper and strive to understand what is difficult and hidden. So, partly, our experience is the most important element, but it can also be the most misleading if we are not careful.
TAKING THE THREE TOGETHER
When assessing the methods and goals of yoga, we constantly weigh the contributions of these three elements: tradition, science and personal experience. There are some instances when all three align. This is the case with Alternate Nostril breathing, a practice described in the ancient texts, explained clearly with the modern scientific understanding of the nervous system, and reinforced by our own experience. We are quite confident in the function of this practice.
Other practices are more difficult to justify. Inversions like Headstand and Shoulderstand were originally designed to prevent the falling of bindu from the head into the abdomen. Since that belief has fallen by the wayside, more modern practitioners try to ground the practices in physiological things like blood pressure or thyroid stimulation, which are questionable and unproven to the best of our knowledge.
Yogic practices may be anywhere on this scale, swinging from 'traditional' to 'modern', and scientifically proven to completely debunked. Not to mention the experiences we have when we try these things for ourselves. We only suggest that you are considered and thoughtful when practicing yoga.
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
The second most common injury we see in the yoga world is of the hip. The damage happens when the hip bends (flexes) significantly. The thigh bone can bump against the bone of the pelvis and hip socket, crushing the cartilage there. This is called hip impingement.
The injury generally happens in three progressive stages that may take months or years to develop. In the first stage, there is a slight or moderate pinching sensation as we pull the leg into the chest or rest the body onto the leg with gravity. This pinch is not the result of muscular engagement or tissue stretching, but of bone resting on bone and squishing the cartilage between. (There is a somewhat common instruction to 'feel a pinching sensation in the hip' in some postures. We recommend against this, for obvious reasons.)
If we continue to damage the cartilage beyond the second stage, in the third stage it can actually tear and pull away from the hip socket. This is called a labral tear, because the cartilage ring around the hip socket is the labrum. This injury can be quite painful, making it excruciating to do something as simple as walk. Like in the second stage, not only will the hip joint itself hurt, but the muscles of the thigh will struggle to function properly.
Common postures that are in danger of causing this injury are those that involve deep hip flexion, which is bending of the hip joint. These include Wind Removing (pictured above), Bikram Triangle, Standing Bow, Half Tortoise, Separate Arms Balancing Stick and Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana). Look at the position of the hip in all these postures. Notice that the deep flexion can cause the thigh bone to bump into the pelvis.
How can we avoid, prevent or heal this injury? As with most things, prevention is the most effective method, as it will keep the body healthier and pain-free. To prevent this injury, pay close attention in any of these postures where your hip is deeply flexed. If you feel a pinching or pressure in the top/front of your hip, back off a bit. It can be challenging to separate this sensation from a stretching or engaged muscle, but the differentiation is quite clear once you notice it.
Anytime we use the arms to pull the leg deeper toward the pelvis, use great care! This is taking the hip joint past its normal range of motion, and is a common way to injure the hip. In most (perhaps all) situations, pulling will increase the risk of injury.
Healing damaged hip cartilage is difficult. If you are only in Stage 1 or Stage 2, backing off of the postures will likely allow the body to heal. You will need to be conservative with the hip for awhile, at least six weeks. If you have a torn labrum, the conversation gets more complicated, as most will recommend surgical repair. The cartilage doesn't have a great blood supply, so it has trouble healing on its own. There are some stories of non-surgical success, but they are few and far-between.
For us, the moral of the story is to be careful and gentle. Most people practice yoga to improve their health, and injury is the exact opposite of that.
Today we honor the life of Yogacharya Mukul Dutta. Though our time with him was short, we are deeply grateful for the knowledge he shared with us.
Mukul was a student of Bishnu Ghosh and a lifelong teacher. He was recently recognized in Kolkata as the Times of India Yoga Guru 2019.
He was responsible for presenting the book Yoga Cure by Bishnu Ghosh back to the Ghosh family. This inevitably lead to the recent public release.
He was instrumental in helping Jerome Armstrong with research for Calcutta Yoga and had recently been helping with the Women of Yoga project.
Mukul, thank you for the enthusiasm and dedication you brought to yoga, your community and your life!
Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones.
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
This is part of a series about Injuries In Yoga.
The single most common injury that we see in the yoga world is a hamstring attachment injury. It happens due to over-stretching the hamstrings. Since so many postures and exercises target this muscle group on the back of the thighs, what often ends up happening is we over-stretch and the tendon that attaches the hamstrings to the sit bones gets damaged. Quite often, we mistake this new, intense sensation for a "deeper" hamstring stretch, so we continue to push (or more often pull). This makes it worse, and many of us don't realize there is an injury until serious damage has been done.
Stretching the hamstrings has become central to many styles of yoga. Like many other physical elements of modern practice, this emphasis comes from gymnastics, contortion and dance. In any given class, we may stretch the hamstrings from numerous positions: standing, seated, legs together, legs split, one leg, both legs, etc.
This injury creates pain at the point where the hamstrings attach to the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), at the base of the pelvis in the back, pictured to the right and circled in red. It can be painful in forward folding positions, and may be sore after class so that it hurts to sit down. It is sometimes called "yoga butt". This injury is so common that almost half of yoga practitioners---men and women---have it currently or have had it in the past.
Common postures that could strain the hamstrings are: Hands to Feet, Standing Separate Legs Stretching (pictured above), Standing Bow, Standing Splits, Stretching, Separate Legs Stretching and Tortoise, etc. Take a moment to notice the similarities in these positions, pictured below. They all tilt the pelvis forward with relationship to the femur (thigh bone). This makes the hamstrings long, which is why we feel the "stretching" in the back of the leg. The deeper these postures are, and the harder we push them, the more likely it will be to damage the attachment of the hamstrings.
HOW TO HELP
First and foremost: rest. I know you don't want to hear this, and resting can be a real challenge for the mind and ego. This injury can take months or years to heal, and the more we aggravate it the longer it will take. Avoid forward folds for several months. Seriously! You can still do lots of other exercises and postures, but avoid forward bending of the hip for awhile. DO NOT STRETCH YOUR HAMSTRINGS!
Second, don't overstretch the hamstrings, even after you're healed. The natural range of motion of the hamstrings only gets the femurs (thigh bones) to about 90 degrees with the pelvis when the knees are straight. This means that the vast majority of contortion-influenced yoga postures that "stretch" the hamstrings take it too far, which is why injury is so common. You might not be able to do Standing Splits with the same picturesque beauty, but you will be able to walk and sit without pain.
Third, strengthen and shorten the hamstrings. We did a whole blog on this, where we explain a handful of postures and exercises that will make the legs strong and help prevent injury. These include Balancing Stick, Squatting, Bridge and Jastiasana.
The most important thing to take away from this is that you can get hurt from yoga practice. If you have pain at the back of your hip, the top of your hamstrings, at or near your sit bones, and this is exacerbated when you do forward folding postures, STOP IMMEDIATELY! It is very likely that you are damaging the upper attachment of the hamstrings. Take the time to let it heal, and then perhaps adjust your approach to the physical postures so that they have less likelihood of injury.
(If you missed the beginning of this project or want a refresher, here is Part 1.)
Hello from Kolkata!
As I write this, I (Ida) am sitting in the heart of Kolkata, somewhere between Ghosh's Yoga College in the north part of the city, and the National Library where I spent the day.
About 6 months have passed since I was last here. In that time the project has been moving along slowly but surely. We ran a kickstarter, which didn't quite work but it did lead to a few podcasts and an article in Scroll.In. It has also led to a wonderful outpouring of comments, questions and well wishes. I am so inspired by this, and grateful for the enthusiasm and energy people have been bringing to the project through their kind words.
Over the summer I also worked on a publishing pitch which was been submitted to a handful of publishers. Given the feedback it's gotten so far, Chandrima and I feel we're getting close to something happening with it.
There are several goals of this trip. One is to continue finding articles written either by the Bengali women of yoga or about them. Just today I found several!
A goal from the beginning has been to find Reba Rakshit's family and see if they are interested in sharing with they know. Miraculously, I recently got a phone number, they were receptive to the request and willing to meet! This is big and should help settle the pieces into place.
Stay tuned as this project continues to unfold!
Over the past few months, we have heard increasingly loud calls for talk about injury in yoga. So many students are hurt or have pain, and they don’t know what it is, how it happened or how to fix it. Some are even told by their teachers to push through the sensation to continue deepening the physical postures. After all, these exercises and postures are supposed to be healing, right? When we describe the common yoga injuries, students are both 1) shocked that you can get hurt doing yoga, and 2) surprised to hear us describing the pain and difficulty that they experience.
Yes, yoga can hurt you. It’s true. If you’ve practiced the physical forms of yoga that are popular in the West for more than a few months, chances are you’ve been injured or know someone who has. This is not to say that physical yoga practices are inherently dangerous or should be avoided. The same risk is present in virtually any physical activity: basketball, running, bowling. Anytime we use the body in a repetitive way and push it to go farther and farther, the risk of injury is quite high. We generally don’t know the limits of our capabilities until we go too far!
Yoga is mostly thought of as a healing, healthy and therapeutic form of exercise, not to mention safe. Since most of us approach the practices thinking they will help us, we overlook the possibility for injury until it’s too late. It is especially true in the yoga world, where we want to believe that it only has the ability to make us better, more open, happier, peaceful versions of ourselves. The idea that any of these practices could injure our bodies, nervous systems or minds feels foreign and even contradictory. So all too often we disregard it. Until we get injured. Even then, we may think it was our fault, that we weren’t doing the practice right, because a “healing” practice couldn’t possibly be dangerous.
But injuries are quite common in yoga. And each style has its own tendency toward certain imbalances, as the stress and repetition in each practice are a little different.
We are going to do a whole series of posts about Injuries In Yoga. We will go into some depth about the most common injuries we see, which include hamstring attachment strain, hip impingement and labral tear, meniscus tear in the knee, supraspinatus damage in the shoulder, bicep tendon strain in the shoulder, sacroiliac instability in the low spine, and neck pain in the base of the neck. All of these can be created or exacerbated by physical yoga practices.
For now, we want you to know that yoga can injure you, especially if you think it never will. Always take care and try to understand what you’re doing and why. Some intense sensations are safe and even beneficial, while others are not. Use caution and ask your teacher if you’re not sure. If they tell you that you won’t hurt yourself in yoga, get a new teacher.
If you have an injury or had one in the past that you’d like to tell us about, please comment or message. Let us know your experience!
We finally arrived in London! After more than a year of preparations and a solid month of visa and passport complications, we touched down in London yesterday and begin our studies today. For the next year we will be here at SOAS University of London, delving into the Traditions of Yoga and Meditation.
We at Ghosh Yoga have always straddled the divide between modern Western yoga, Indian tradition and academic scholarship. All three aspects are fascinating and deep in their own right, each with earnest students and diverse perspectives. Put them together and it can go one of two ways: It can be terribly confusing and frustrating with so many different points of view which are often contradictory to one another. Or, as we see it, it can be illuminating, as certain beliefs from one area are unknowingly adopted into another.
We love going to India and experiencing the culture and tradition first hand. It is not only humbling and humanizing to be in another society, but it enriches our understanding of yoga and its underlying philosophy, purpose and development. Of course, being from the US, we were brought up in the modern Western yoga studio system, where the focus is mostly physical with a few hints of mental underpinnings.
This year will be focused, though, on academic scholarship. We will study the histories of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism that gave rise to yoga and meditation, all from a "scholarly" perspective. This has its limitations, but it is only one piece of a broader set of knowledge. We don't take this type of formal schooling to be the most valuable bit but an equally useful piece of a well-rounded perspective.
We honestly don't know what we will learn this year. It wouldn't be much use if we did! The goal is to put ourselves in the hands of our teachers and to be open-minded. It is exciting to be in the presence of some of the preeminent yoga scholars of today, like Jim Mallinson, Mark Singleton and Jason Birch. Our ears are open!
A couple years ago we did a comparison of all the postures in significant publications from the Ghosh yoga lineage. There were a couple of surprises in that search. One of the most significant was the complete absence of Standing Bow Pulling posture in any of the texts. Why was this posture missing? Where and when did it come from? And how did it become so central to Bikram Choudhury's system of 26 postures that he developed in the 1970s?
Upon further research, it seems that Standing Bow Pulling posture is a descendant of a more difficult position, Lord of the Dance. But even Lord of the Dance is a recent addition to the yoga canon, appearing only in the 1950s or '60s. It seems that Lord of the Dance popped up in south India, perhaps coming from Indian dance, contortion and gymnastics, and quickly spread. Its transition toward Standing Bow Pulling didn't come until late in the 1960s.
Let's start at the beginning...
Obvious as it may be to state, Standing Bow Pulling and its predecessor Lord of the Dance posture (Natarajasana) are nowhere to be found in the pre-modern texts of yoga. As physical postures were becoming more prominent throughout the development of hathayoga, they were largely seated or lying positions. Almost no postures in hathayoga are done standing.
Even as we entered the 20th century and the fathers (sadly we don't know of many mothers) of modern yoga revolutionized the discipline, the acrobatics and deep stretching that we recognize today were still scarce. Early pioneers like Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, Krishnamacharya, Shivananda of Rishikesh, Bishnu Ghosh and Buddha Bose greatly expanded the number of positions in "yoga" through the 1920s, '30s and '40s, but still there was nothing resembling Standing Bow Pulling. At that point, yoga was largely adopting the practices of calisthenics and marrying the breath with relatively simple movements of the body.
This all makes Choudhury's Standing Bow Pulling posture fascinating and very new. It seems to be based on a modification or preparation for Lord of the Dance, which itself is a recent addition to the yoga asana canon. And further, this variation continues to be deepened and elaborated until it has become essentially a new posture in its own right.
1. Goldberg, Elliott. The Path of Modern Yoga. p395
2. Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. 2012 (1969).
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