As yoga teachers, the words we use are of the utmost importance. This is how we transfer information to our students. People come to a yoga posture class to gain a better understanding of their practice, make progress and generally feel better. We want to help them achieve these goals.
With this in mind, there are three categories of cues we can use. Let's look at the different types of cues and how we can incorporate them.
TYPE 1: Cues that get the right result and teach people how their body works.
This type of cue gets people to move their body in the direction of the pose, while putting their mind right where the action happens. To better understand this, we'll use the example of a backward bend of the spine.
In all backward bends of the spine, we want the back muscles (erector spinae) to engage. Knowing this, a cue such as "engage your back muscles to bend your spine" teaches what to do and how to do it.
We should use this type of instruction as much as possible.
The sticking point becomes if people do not understand how to access the muscles we are asking them to use. This brings us to the second type of cue.
TYPE 2: Cues that get the right result but do not teach people how their body works.
These types of instructions get people to move in the shape of the posture, but don't put their mind in the right place. Let's stick with the backward bend example.
Often we will say "lift your chest up." This cue almost always gets the right result in the body. However, the action that makes the chest "lift up" is nothing more than the back muscles engaging! So while this instruction teaches our students what to do, it does not teach them how.
Over time this can lead to students that are very confused in their postures, and have their mind focused on areas of the body that will not help them do what they are trying to do.
TYPE 3: Cues that do neither.
Cues that do not teach what to do or how to do it, are usually born from the desire of the teacher to be creative or interesting. While it's a valid temptation, we should try not to fall for it. Our desires should never get in the way of our student's progress. Simple and clear instruction is the best road forward. The physical practice is hard enough as it is.
All instructions are not created equally. If our goal is to help people as much as possible, we should focus on the cues that will do just that. Teach them what to do and how to do it.
So many of us practice physical postures on a regular basis. In doing this, it's easy to lose sight of what these postures really are, and why we practice them in the first place.
A posture is a set of muscular engagements and relaxations. Figuring out what is happening in each position and using our muscles accordingly, is the goal of a physical practice. Once we find the correct musculature in a pose, we adjust our breathing, focus our gaze and enter stillness. Each posture is different, hence the different shapes.
Where we get into trouble is beginning to think, consciously or not, that simply getting our body into the shape of a posture is the goal. This becomes a problem when we look like we are doing a posture, but we don't have correct control over the musculature of the pose.
This often happens in a forehead to knee poses for example. We become focused on touching our forehead to our knee rather than being aware of the mechanism that rounds our spine and makes this happen in the first place. (The abs!)
Or we become focused on pulling with our arms in Hands to Feet, thinking we will get further in the pose. (Pull with the arms doesn't teach our body to stretch properly, and often leads to injury over time.)
The Ghosh style of physical practice is built upon principles of muscle control. As Bishnu Ghosh himself explained, "Controlling of any muscle is nothing but to contract and relax the muscles without any movement of the limbs or contraction of any other muscle.”
In posture practice, we should seek to develop our muscle control, remembering that the shape isn't worth making if our bodies aren't working correctly.
Five years ago Ida and I set foot in Kolkata for the first time. I was certain it would be our only visit, since the circumstances were so utterly odd and couldn't possibly be replicated. We were searching for the roots of Buddha Bose's manuscript which had been written in 1938 but never published. The reason for its disappearance was unclear, and that's what we were in Kolkata hoping to understand.
Ida and I were the second and third wheels of Jerome Armstrong, who had tracked down the manuscript through some impressive sleuthing. He didn't want to make a trip to the other side of the world alone and so enlisted our company. How could we say no?
The three of us arrived in Kolkata in the middle of the night. Our flight landed at 2 a.m. and we stepped into the hot, humid Indian darkness. The city never quiets down, and the streets were filled with drivers leaning against their yellow cabs and passing the time in conversation. We found a proprietor who ensured us he could take us where we were going, and after Jerome hilariously tried to get into the driver's seat--located on the right side of the car in India--we were off.
Even though it was approaching 4am, we insisted on locating Ghosh's College of Physical Education before proceeding to the hotel. None of us had been to Kolkata before, and our ignorance was made worse by the blackness and the fact that our GPS didn't work in a foreign country. We were confined to guesswork and imperfect commands to the driver. After a few confounded circles we found the gate, and so our Kolkata experience commenced with a predawn photo of our trio outside the College, while those who weren't sleeping looked on with disbelief and mild annoyance.
We stayed at the Hotel Neeranand, which far exceeded my expectations with its delicious breakfast--I had feared that I would be unable to eat much food simply due to its unfamiliarity--occasionally functioning WiFi and lukewarm water. To our great relief, the room had a Western style toilet, though it had no seat. It wasn't until the last day of our visit that we realized it was a mistake. Directly prior to our departure, a new paper-wrapped toilet seat appeared in our bathroom, with apologies for its tardiness. I had resigned myself to its absence, grateful for anything that flushed.
The first day began without hesitation, as we met Buddha Bose's grandson, Pavitra, and ex-daughter-in-law, Chitralekha, for breakfast at the hotel. Since Bose had married Bishnu Ghosh's daughter, Pavitra is also the great-grandson of Ghosh and Yogananda. He looks it, with a round face and piercing black eyes. They sat down across the table from us with palpable distrust. Who were these Westerners who dared to poke their noses into Bose, Kolkata and yoga? Fair enough. But Pavitra and his mother had come to meet us nonetheless, perhaps driven by curiosity or amusement. As we sat together on the roof of the hotel in the bright morning sun, they flipped through the photocopied manuscript and became more and more engrossed as they realized its authenticity and were reminded of their love for Bose and the methods of yoga. We, the imposing Westerners, quickly faded into non-existence.
Next stop: the National Library, a goliath of storage and a relic of pre-digital organization. The building is huge, with an entryway that only hints at the vast treasures hidden in the back rooms and basements. It reeks of mildew and age, of written human history that is disintegrating one monsoon at a time. On the quest for Buddha Bose's story, Jerome had stumbled upon a later publication that Bose wrote about pilgrimages into the Himalayas, named Holy Kailas after the sacred mountain. Pavitra came with us. He had never seen nor heard of this book by his grandfather. It took a couple hours of filling out forms and waiting, dazed as we were with exhaustion from travel, jet-lag and the excitement of a new world, but eventually the library staff called our number and delivered Holy Kailas.
We returned to Ghosh's College in the daytime when it was open. Muktamala, Ghosh's granddaughter who runs the school, agreed to teach the three of us a class if we came back when the school was closed on Sunday. Cost for the class would be about $20 per person, which is outrageously expensive for Kolkata. But we would pay that for a class in the states, and how often would we get the opportunity to take a semi-private lesson with BC Ghosh's granddaughter? We agreed.
The hour-long class she led us through included lots of therapeutic exercises and a handful of postures, plus a little meditation at the end. Little did we know at the time that a yoga "class" was unusual at Ghosh's College. Most yoga there was done via individual prescription as opposed to led group class. Afterward, Jerome asked Muktamala if she would teach Westerners how to do the exercises and prescriptions. Without hesitation, she agreed.
The primary purpose of our trip was a meeting with Bose's daugther, Rooma, who runs the school that he started in the 1970s, the Yoga Cure Institute. We taxied to newer neighborhoods in southern Kolkata where the school is located and were invited into the office for about an hour with Rooma and her husband. They insisted that we did not record the meeting or even take notes, admonishing us that asking questions of the teacher was disrespectful. The student simply sits quietly and absorbs what the elder deems important to impart on any given day, Rooma's husband said. It seemed that the very fact of our coming here was offensive in its audacious curiosity.
Our discussion was polite and wide-ranging. Rooma told us that they knew of the manuscript, had an original copy, and that it was never "lost." That Bose had chosen not to publish it because of errors. They did not show us their copy or offer any evidence of their claims. She told us a few stories about performing stunts in the old days, like lying across a sword while a brick was broken on her back. And she pointed us to an invaluable new character of whom we had never heard: Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji, mentioning offhand that he wrote an exhaustive book in German.
I was wholly unprepared for the power of 11.5 hour jet-lag, almost completely opposite of what my body expected as far as sleeping and waking. Each day was ghostly, bright and hot while my brain tried to dream. The nights were vivid and alert, only adding to the other-worldly impression of Kolkata.
That trip would not be our last to India. Since then, Ida has gone to Kolkata at least twice every year to help at the College and to do research. I have gone back about once per year. My original assumption, that this excursion would be my only one, turned out to be absurdly false. India and Kolkata are endlessly fascinating and engrossing.
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.
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.
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