Along with the introduction of modern physical practices, a lot has been lost in the world of breath control practices as they were documented through yogic texts for many hundreds of years. Pranayama is most easily translated as breath control, but “prana” means one’s life force. Pranayama is therefore, the control of one’s life force as accessed through the breath.
There are many benefits to controlling the breath. These benefits continue to be brought to the forefront through scientific study. Benefits range from relaxation to potentially suppressing tumor growth in the body. While the studies are magnificent in their potential, the most powerful reason to cultivate the breath in yoga is because of its intermediary relationship to the body and the mind.
When we access and manipulate the breath, we use two different parts of our brain. We also can access the two parts of our autonomic nervous system by changing how we breathe. If that wasn’t enough, we can also choose which nostrils we breathe through and stimulate our olfactory nerve which has a direct relationship with our brain. Many of us might question the necessity of these types of practices since our breath is an automatic function. However, it is easy to make the judgement that breath manipulation is unnecessary when we have not experienced the results. Once you realize breathing can reduce stress, focus the mind, and possibly suppress cancerous tumors, it seems an obvious practice to undertake.
When we strengthen our awareness of the body through asanas, we are mostly concerned with our muscles, bones and structural tissues. We get stronger muscles, and ease muscular tension. The benefits often translate into other systems of the body which result in things like better circulation or digestion. However it is not until we get into pranayama that we experience the body on a deeper plane.
The awareness we get from breathing is the awareness of our nervous system. It is a deep and profound level of awareness that leads us to a level untouched by most: experiencing the mind.
Most of the time we experience our thoughts. We never think about thinking, we only react to our thoughts. We get lost in the result of our thoughts, but not in what caused them to begin with.
A very common example of this phenomenon involves the idea of a movie and the screen on which the movie is projected onto. When we watch a movie, we know it is not real. The screen is blank before the movie begins and is blank after the movie finishes. We just accept this.
However our minds are no different!
They are blank before a thought arises and blank after the thought finishes. The problem is that we mistake the thoughts for reality. Through stillness, we can learn to identify the “movie screen” of our minds as reality, not the fleeting thoughts that project onto our mind.
Pranayama, and working to still the breath, is the gateway into stillness of the mind.
The body is the first step on the path of stillness. We must learn to make the body strong and energized while being calm and present. This is a type of strength and physicality we are not used to in the modern world.
In today’s world, the body is often thought of as an unfortunate and failing reality we have to deal with that must be conquered through mental will power, fitness, food, drugs or surgery. When the body doesn’t do what we think it should, we curse it, ignore it or cut it open.
On the path of yoga, the body is a gateway toward realization, not an interruption.
We might live with other people but we live in our body. If we cannot hear what our own body is telling us, it is hopeless to think we can make more subtle connections with what we think or who we are. If we cannot connect with our body, how will we connect with anyone else? If we cannot feel the harm we do to ourselves, we will never comprehend the harm we do to others.
Our body is a source of strength that we can tap into, but we must treat it as such. With time, the strength we cultivate in the body will lead us to realize we can stand still in the middle of our lives and wait for the answers we are looking for.
There are many ways to make the body strong, like weight lifting, running and calisthenics. But yoga is unique in its ability to teach awareness of the body. On the path of yoga, we begin by putting the body in physical positions called postures or asanas.
Each posture has a set of physical benefits. They require distinct combinations of strength and flexibility. The benefits surface when we contract and relax the muscles as prescribed in each asana, while bringing stillness into the body and mind. In this way, we feel exactly what comes up in the body and learn to relax around it.
In asana, we learn to sift through pain, injury, exhaustion, ego, drive, focus, tension and countless other fluctuations that surface when experiencing the body. The body is the first way in which we associate with the power of stillness.
Through the body, we learn how to listen. We learn how to work in harmony with the tools we have, not in a state of inner conflict. If we cannot listen to the body, we cannot listen to the breath, and we certainly cannot listen to the mind with any deep level of awareness.
As human beings we tend to avoid being still. Our minds are designed to create thought and they do it very well. We create identities, ideas of who we are and what we want. Then we create problems for those identities and solutions to those problems, repeating this cycle countless number of times each day. These turnings of our mind are so powerful that we then take physical action to solve the problems our minds have created. We actually create the structure of our day to act out and support what our mind tells us is important! However our senses have created our desires, our desires have created our thoughts and our thoughts have in turn created our action!
This may seem obvious and perfectly acceptable, except that what our mind is telling us is reality may or may not be real. Regardless, the mind is so powerful that we have accepted the reality it has created as absolute reality. We become so used to the movement of our minds that stillness feels foreign. We fear that if we are still, we will miss opportunities, not be enough, or not show up for our responsibilities. This is scary, so naturally we avoid it. We perceive comfort in the familiar.
Even though we know our minds are spinning, we let our thoughts take the reins of our life.
In the path toward stillness, we begin to realize and understand that the mind is designed to create thought.
In yoga these thoughts are called vritis. Some of our thoughts are based in reality, but some are not. When we act upon any thoughts, whether they are true or not, they get reinforced. Over time we can build an entire thought empire based upon a single thought that we had ages ago. This is how we can wake up one day to realize that our lives are not at all what we intended them to be. Worse yet, we may never realize why this happened in the first place.
It is only in stillness that we can start to sort though the constructions of the mind to realize the fluctuating nature of our reality and our relationship to it.
Without stillness, our mind continues to cycle from one thought to the next. We are just passengers on the train of our mind. When reality appears to be outside of us, it is very difficult to grasp the concept that it is constantly being created in our mind. In actuality, we are in control of our perception of reality. On the path of yoga, this realization is the goal.
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.
The Women of Yoga Kickstarter ended yesterday, July 9th. A special day in the Ghosh world. There were so many of you who showed your support and enthusiasm for the project. Thank you so much! Sadly though, the funding goal wasn't met. Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform, so we begin again.
All along I knew it was a large goal to try and reach. That was the point. This isn't a small project, and it shouldn't be treated that way. So while this first step of fundraising wasn't successful, this project is certainly not over! It will continue on, one way or another! If you'd like to follow along, here is a page with information and a mailing list sign up.
You can still donate to the project if you'd like to. We still plan to find a way to publish Labanya Palit's book and research all of the women we can, to put out a larger project. All the funds raised will go toward making this project come to life.
I hope you will join me for this ride. Please reach out with any questions, comments, ideas, etc. And most importantly, stay tuned for what happens next. This is just the beginning.
Listen to the latest episode of Dharma Talk with Henry Winslow! You can hear all about the Women of Yoga campaign. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.
"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.
On June 1st, we will be launching the official Women of Yoga kickstarter campaign!
This campaign will raise funds to translate and publish the 1955 book by Labanya Palit, a Ghosh lineage yoga teacher and author from Kolkata. It will also kick off the research into other women of yoga whose stories have been lost, forgotten or never told to begin with. You can read more about the project here!
We hope you will join us in this important campaign! Sign up for the mailing list to be the first to know when it's live. Stay tuned...
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
- Origins of Standing Bow
- 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