Dr Gouri Shankar Mukerji in Padmasana
This blog is in celebration of 100 years of Ghosh's College in Kolkata: 1923-2023!
Spread the word: #100years #ghoshyoga
There are a variety of references to 84 in texts on hathayoga. Roughly speaking, texts on hathayoga originate from between the 12th century up until the 18th century.
Nowadays, "hatha" has taken on new meaning, often referring to stillness in postures, as opposed to flowing styles known as vinyasa. However, this is a newer meaning of the word. So, in this blog we are referring to the practice of hathayoga as described in the texts that comes from the period mentioned above and not the meaning it can hold today.
84 In HathaYoga
Below you'll find a sample of passages that refer to the number 84:
"There are as many asanas as there are species of creatures, Shiva has enumerated 84 asanas, and out of all the asanas, only two are particularly distinguished." -Goraksasatakam, 13th century
“There are eighty-four asanas of various kinds which I have taught. Out of these I shall take four and describe them.” -Siva Samhita, 15th century
“Eighty-four asanas were taught by Shiva. Out of those I shall now describe the four important ones.” -Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 15th century
“All together there are as many asanas as there are species of living beings. Shiva has taught 8,400,000. Of these, eighty-four are preeminent, of which thirty-two are useful in the world of mortals.” -Gheranda Samhita, 17th century
You will notice that 84 (or a variation of it) is always referred to, but the actual number of postures that are described in the text is far less.
An Amazing Coincidence?
In the first and last passage, you also see the reference to species of creatures and living beings. Miraculously, in 2011, the Census for Marine Life published a study that concluded there were 8.7 million species on Earth (+ or - 1.3 million)! The previous estimates placed the number of species between 3 million and 100 million, which was a massively large spread. Due to new analytic tools, they were able to measure more precisely and the results directly corresponded with the number of species referred to in the hathayoga texts!
Because of the idea that 84 is seen to represent something sacred or symbolic, it is referred to despite the fact that it does not correspond to the actual number of postures. Nor are the collections of postures always the same. When you come across "84 asanas" don't worry about trying to count to 84! This was never the purpose for invoking the number. Certainly don't try to figure out what is the "traditional" or "original" 84 as there never was a singular 84.
Census for Marine Life study can be found here.
Akers, B. D. trsl. (2002) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Woodstock: Yoga Vidya
Kuvalayananda, S. and Shukla, S. A. trsl. (2006) Gorakasatakam. Kaivalyadhama: Lonavala
Mallinson, J. trsl. (2004) The Gheranda Samhita. Yoga Vidya: Woodstock.
Mallinson, J. trsl. (2007) The Shiva Samhita. Yoga Vidya: Woodstock.
"The 84" is an ever illusive idea, commonly thought to be a traditional or original sequence of asanas. However, the number 84 holds sacred or symbolic significance both in the ancient and modern eras, but does not actually refer to any set list of postures.
Gudrun Buhnemann writes in her book Eighty-four Asanas in Yoga, that 84 is a "number frequently invoked as authentic by ancient and modern authorities....However, nothing is known about an original set of eighty-four asanas” (Buhnemann, p. 2). She explains, “It is therefore apparent that the number eighty-four traditionally signifies completeness, and in some cases, sacredness” (Buhnemann, p. 27).
The number is found in various traditions. For example, in Buddhism it is thought that 84,000 stupas (meaning "heap" or burial mound) are said to have been built by Asoka and there are 84,000 kinds of enlightenment.
We will see in the following blogs that the number 84 and variations on it are invoked in texts on yoga, however this does not refer to the actual number of postures, nor does it refer to a sequence.
Next time we'll see passages about "84" in hathayoga texts. Then we'll look at the expansion of asana in the 20th century that leads to long lists of postures, many of which weren't considered asanas prior to this period. We'll finish this series with examining the idea of a sequence and physical cultures that highly influence yoga. Stay tuned!
Buhnemann, G. (2011). Eighty-Four Asanas in Yoga: A Survey of Traditions. DK Printworld.
Hyperextension is when a joint moves beyond its normal range of motion. Here we'll focus on hyperextension of the knee for the following reasons: 1) it is common for people to hyperextend their knees in asana classes, 2) this can be detrimental to the health and stability of the knee joint.
Let's look at why this can be problematic, and how we can decide whether we, or our students, are hyperextending. (Hint, it's not actually the knee we should look at!)
Hyperextension on its own is not necessarily bad for joints. However, it becomes potentially injurious when we're bearing weight. In other words, if we were to simply straighten our knees as much as possible while sitting, we may hyperextend our knees. Because we are not bearing any weight, this will most likely be safe for the joints.
When we stand on one leg, as in balancing poses, we put all of our body's weight on one leg. This doubles the load that leg is carrying making the force is much greater. This is where we can start to strain the tendons and ligaments behind the knee.
Since we are considering the knee, it's easy to think we should look at the knee. However, this is not the easiest way to spot hyperextension. Instead, we should look at the relationship of our shin (tibia) to our heel (calcaneus).
You can see in Examples 1 & 2, that the lower leg is at an angle when compared to the foot. You can then see in Example 1, that the knee is behind the foot. This is hyperextension.
If you compare this to the picture at the very top of the page, you can see that the shin is more or less, perpendicular to the foot. This is much more stable in balance, and will not put strain on the tendons or ligaments of the knee.
If you are wondering if you hyperextending, use this as your guide. If you are a teacher, look at the angle of the shin into the foot. This will guide you far more easily than looking at the knee. Finally, remember that hyperextension is something to keep a look out for when the joint is bearing weight. Whenever we are sitting or lying down, and not bearing weight, it is less of a concern.
We promise the second editions of the Beginning and Intermediate manuals are on their way! We know they have been out of stock for quite some time now, but we made the decision months ago that we would only re-release them once they were updated. We are excited about what will be the finished product.
This process has meant that we are completely rethinking how the manuals are structured. We are questioning everything: the order, the postures, the instructions.
When we first made them in 2015 (around the time of the above photo), we were basing them on what we had learned and practiced. This is no surprise.
Since then we have continued to learn and practice of course, but we also have taught extensively around the world. With this tremendous opportunity, comes insight into what questions come up no matter the city. What do people struggle with? Where does the confusion lie? What is working?
The original manuals have strengths and things we think are still useful. This will all remain. Though we have refined how we conceive of the practice. This will be reflected in the second editions.
The Beginning manual is turning into the "Foundations". The Intermediate will still contain those bridge practices that lie somewhere between accessible and very challenging.
We are excited about this process of regrouping and refining. We often hear that it's scary to do better, or to learn a better way. We think it's exciting. As one of our teachers used to say, "This is called progress!"
If you'd like to be contacted when the manuals are available, sign up here.
Release dates: March/April 2023
Beware of the Backward Leaning Forward Bend! This position can and will deceive. We may think this is a backbend, but it is not. Here's why.
What is the Backward Leaning Forward Bend
The Backward Leaning Forward Bend (top photo) is when we lean back, push the hips forward for counter balance, and the spine stays straight. This can feel like we are backward bending, because we are leaning back.
But in this position, the abdominal muscles are engaging to prevent us from falling backward.
The abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis primarily) are the muscles of forward bending. These are opposite to the spinal erectors, which are muscles of backward bending.
Meaning, when we lean back and the abdominal muscles engage as in the BLFB, this is functionally a forward bend.
If you examine the second photo however, you can see that the back muscles have shortened (engaged) and the spine itself is extending, or bending backward. Compare this to the top photo, and you can see the spine is in a completely different position. Photo 2 is a functionally a backward bend.
Why Should We Avoid the Backward Leaning Forward Bend (BLFB)
There are several reasons why we should not do the BLFB:
1) This position will not strengthen our back muscles. This is because the back muscles are not engaging.
2) This is the cause of the "low back" pain/discomfort people often feel in standing backbends. When the spine doesn't bend, all of the pressure transfers at the low back instead of evenly across the spine. This isn't healthy for the spine.
3) It will probably feel awful. In the BLFB position, we are asking our body to go back by leaning back and to go forward with the engagement of the abdomen. This feels exactly as it reads: confusing and conflicting.
4) It won't improve our backbends, posture or back health because effort is not in the right place. Therefore we won't actually progress in the direction we are trying to.
To recap, always use your back muscles if you are trying to bend your spine backward. This is easiest done from the floor in postures such as Cobra or Full Locust. If you are doing a Standing Backbend, just make sure you are actually bending your spine backward. Avoid the Backward Leaning Forward Bend!
O Dattatreyayogashastra, Discurso de Dattatreya sobre Yoga, é o primeiro texto conhecido a explicar um sistema de hathayoga. Existem outras descrições de muitas das suas práticas em textos anteriores, mas essa é a primeira vez recebem o título de hathayoga. Hathayoga é descrita junto com três outras formas de yoga: mantrayoga, layayoga e rajayoga.
Dattatreya disse: “Yoga tem muitas formas, ó brahmin. Devo explicar tudo isso a você: o Yoga dos Mantras (mantrayoga), o Yoga da Dissolução (layayoga) e o Yoga da Força (hathayoga). O quarto é o Yoga Real (rajayoga), é o melhor dos yogas”. Versos 8-11
As seções sobre as outras três formas são breves, mas Dattatreya escreve em profundidade sobre as práticas de hathayoha, o yoga da força. Não apenas isso, mas o texto descreve duas formas separadas de hathayoga: “o yoga dos oito elementos conhecido por Yājñavalkya e outros” (29), e “a doutrina dos adeptos como Kapila” (131).
O YOGA DOS OITO ELEMENTOS
O yoga dos oito elementos de Yājñavalkya é muito parecido com o reconhecido sistema de oito partes de Patanjali. Ele inicia com Regras (yama) e Restrições (niyama) e segue para Posturas (asana), Controle Respiratório (pranayama), Fixação (dharana) Meditação (dhyana) e Absorção (samadhi). É interessante que Dattatreya referencie Yājñavalkya mas não Patanjali.
Das regras (yamas), “uma dieta moderada é a coisa mais importante, não nenhuma das outras. Das restrições, não-violência é a mais importante, não nenhuma das outras”. (33). Às posturas (asana) são garantidos dois bons parágrafos, mencionando o sagrado “84 lakh de posturas” (34) mas descrevendo apenas uma: a Postura de Lótus.
Controle Respiratório recebe a maior atenção com mais de 30 versos. A seção descreve respiração com narinas alternadas, aconselhando 20 retenções de respiração pela manhã, 20 ao meio-dia, 20 à noite e 20 à meia-noite. Os três elementos finais recebem relativamente breve tratamento antes do texto partir para a segunda forma de hathayoga.
O CAMINHO DE KAPILA
Separado dos métodos acima estão os métodos de Kapila, também chamados hathayoga. “Adeptos como Kapila, por outro lado, praticaram Força [hatha] de uma maneira diferente” (29). “A diferença é uma diferença em prática, mas a recompensa é uma e única” (131).
Os métodos de Kapila incluem diversos mudras e bandhas, o que envolve a combinação de posição física – “Ele deve esticar seu pé direito e segurá-lo firme com ambas as mãos” (133) – com controle respiratório – “ele deve segurar [sua respiração] pelo tempo que conseguir antes de expirar” (134). O propósito dessas práticas é mover os ventos e fluidos sagrados pelo corpo.
Não é afirmado explicitamente se as duas formas de hathayoga podem ser praticadas juntas ou se devem ser mantidas separadas. Nos séculos subsequentes hathayoga tornou-se consolidada, combinando as práticas dos oito elementos com as práticas de mudra de Kapila. Nas décadas modernas, hathayoga evoluiu para um termo não específico significando “as práticas físicas de yoga”.
Deixaremos você com um pensamento final de Dattatreya:
“[Se] diligente, todos, mesmo o jovem ou o idoso ou o doente, gradualmente obtém sucesso no yoga através da prática...o homem sábio dotado de fé que é constantemente devotado a sua prática obtém completo sucesso. Sucesso acontece para aquele que performa suas práticas – como poderia acontecer para aquele que não performa?” (40-42).
- Todas citações são de: James Mallinson, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, 2013.
Ghosh's Yoga College was founded in 1923. This year we celebrate yoga, as it has evolved and reached so many people around the world in the last 100 years.
We have a handful of special things planned for this year. The first up is the release of the second editions of the Beginning and Intermediate Ghosh Yoga Practice Manuals. These will be ready in March.
We have spent years teaching and refining methods of practice and have a lot to update. It is often humbling to look back at what we were teaching years ago. It is always a good reminder that progress and humility go hand in hand.
The Beginning Manual will now be called "Foundations" and will cover range of motion and basic movements that a healthy human body should be able to do. We are excited to reformat this in a way that we think will be more useful to both practitioners and teachers.
Later in the year Strong Woman will be released. This is a biography of yogi and circus star Reba Rakshit, a star student of Bishnu Ghosh.
This year, we are working hard to dive into history even further, while moving forward with as much care and intention as we can. We look forward to connecting this year and celebrating 100 years!
It has been a great year of reading. More than once was my mind blown by something I read, either a far-out science fiction idea, a new scientific study that brought clarity, or a brilliant scholarly way of thinking about a complex issue. These books include fiction, scholarship, autobiography and even a book of sayings. It is remarkable how great things can come from so many different directions. These books are not all new releases. But I read them this year, and they all impacted me significantly. I recommend them all highly.
If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal by Justin Gregg
This book was one of my favorites. It combines surprising and fascinating information with a light touch and a sense of humor, so it is a delight to read. Each chapter focuses on one of humanity's troubling tendencies — like our constant search for meaning — looks at why we have it, and then looks at ways that other animals have solved similar problems. It is clarifying about both what it is to be human and the sheer power of the minds of animals and insects. In the middle of the book, Gregg relays the Cambridge definition of consciousness — the qualities that are needed to call a being 'conscious'. And it turns out that just about every animal and insect qualifies as 'conscious' just as much as humans do. I feel like a bit of a fool to be surprised by that, but so much of human history revolves around the idea that we are the special ones who bear the gift of consciousness; no other creatures do. The concept that every animal on the planet is as conscious as me is profound and humbling. How beautiful!
White Utopias by Amanda Lucia
I heard Amanda Lucia speak at a conference in May and was surprised by how clearly she spoke about complex concepts like cultural appropriation. The same lucidity is in her book, an ethnographic study of many different festivals like Burning Man, Bhakti Fest and Wanderlust. She explores the reasons why Yoga festivals are mostly populated by white people, interweaving philosophical and sociological scholarship. When I started the book, I expected a one-sided criticism of broad concepts like cultural appropriation and spiritual tourism. But this book is thoughtful, open and relatively even-handed. It examines the complexity of different cultures, how certain populations are drawn to yoga festivals, and whether or not they can have authentically transformative experiences there. Spoiler alert: Lucia insists that just about anyone can have a mind-opening, transformative experience at a festival. I loved this book. It showed me new ways of thinking about culture, race, colonialism, transcendence and yoga.
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
Earlier this year, when Salman Rushdie was attacked and seriously injured, he and his work often became the topic of conversation. I heard about his memoir Joseph Anton, named after the pseudonym he used during the years he was in hiding. The book is an account of that time, a period of more than a decade, when he could not move around freely or safely, travel, go for a walk in the park, visit his friends, or even use his own name. Rushdie, with his usual keen observation and melodic use of language, describes the period with increasing claustrophobia and frustration, trapped as he was in his own life. He could not escape, and his fight for free expression and artistic liberty are inspiring, especially with so much at stake, including his career, family, marriage and even his own life. This book is a reminder of what is important in life, what we choose to fight for and what we compromise. A beautiful interweaving art, politics and humanity.
The Little Book of Zen by David Schiller
This little book — it is actually little, meant to fit in your pocket — is deceptively profound. I picked it up because it reminded me of the books of Zen sayings that we used to have around the house when I was younger. It is structured simply, with one quotation or saying on each page, either from monks or well-known figures, about topics relating to Zen. Over the course of the year, I found myself flipping through it almost daily, marking the pages that speak to me and revisiting them often. I have come to think that this unassuming little volume is brilliant. Here are the two sayings that are sticking in my mind today. “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” And “I hear the wind blow and I feel that it was worth being born just to hear the wind blow.”
Rethinking 'Classical Yoga' and Buddhism by Karen O'Brien-Kop
This is a book of scholarship about the Yoga Sutra, where it comes from and what it means. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Yoga Sutra is a text with substantial Buddhist influences. In many ways it seems closer to a Buddhist text than one of Samkhya or Vedanta. This volume by O'Brien-Kop summarizes the known scholarship about the Sutras in a tour de force opening chapter before moving onto examinations of the use of metaphors like rice production, and comparisons with other texts. It is dense and requires a lot of knowledge of the history and philosophy of yoga, but if that is your area, this book will reward you with its rigor and creativity. (Full disclosure: O'Brien-Kop was one of my professors at SOAS in London. She is as hard-working and clear-headed as anyone I've met. A true scholar.)
Klara and the Sun by Kazoo Ishiguro
This book was one of the hits of last year. It is the story of a family who purchases a semi-sentient robot to befriend their daughter. What ensues is a story that questions our instincts about what makes us real, what makes us human. What do we love in others, and what will we do to hold onto them? Seeing the different perspectives of the humans and robots is confounding in a beautiful way. There's not much more I can say about this book. It is well written, well constructed and deeply thought provoking. Sometimes the robots seem more human than the humans, which only begs the question: What does it mean to be human?
She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
I have often thought that journalists are the cousins of scholars, applying exhaustive research and loads of time in the search for truth or clarity. But journalists do it in real time, which makes it harder, I think. They have to figure out what is important today, rather than sift through libraries of old ideas and figures. This book is written by two journalists about journalism, and one story in particular. I loved it for its meticulous nature, its attention to detail, its tireless pursuit of a conclusion that was right there at the tips of their fingers, just out of reach. It makes me happy that people exist in the world who are willing to put in the time and effort to make sense of things; that no amount of work is too much if it is in service of the right cause.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
I am late to the party with this book. It has been on the bestseller list for years, and I have been hearing great things about it for almost as long. Finally this year I read it, and it is just as good as people said. Van Der Kolk clearly explains what happens to the body and mind when we experience trauma — how the mind and body often disconnect from one another. In that way, this book is a tool for empathy in the world, helping us understand a little better what our traumatized brothers and sisters go through every day. As a yoga and breathing teacher, this book was also useful in a practical sense. It turns out that one of the best ways to begin to heal trauma is through the body and breath, bringing the mind's awareness back into connection with a body that feels, and using the breath to synchronize the nervous system and heartbeat. This is a book that should be read by everyone, regardless of age or profession. But I think that's already happening, and I was one of the few stragglers.
Reconstructing Early Buddhism by Roderick Bucknell
Ever so often I get really lucky in a bookstore. Accidentally I stumble across a book I’ve never heard of and don’t know to look for. Out of curiosity I pick it up, and upon reading it my mind is blown. I had that experience with this brand new book by Roderick S Bucknell. (Actually it was Ida who saw it and picked it up.)
Bucknell is a veteran scholar of Buddhism. Here he makes an attempt to reconstruct the earliest teachings of the Buddha through the comparison of texts in several different languages. The concept is bold, and the task is enormous, which is why nothing like this has been attempted at such a large scale. We really are benefiting from Bucknell’s decades as a meditator and scholar.
There are two stunning revelations inside. One is a reconstruction of a different 8-fold path. Yes, you read that correctly! A different 8-fold path! Even more shocking is that his evidence and explanation are convincing; that the 8-fold path as it has been passed down through tradition has some serious problems, and his ‘original 8-fold path’ is more coherent with virtually all the other teachings of Buddhism.
The second revelation is Bucknell’s exploration of the final stages of the Buddhist path, which he describes as containing ‘insight’, not to be confused with ‘mindfulness’. The examination of the ‘the knowledges’ is clarifying about the ultimate trajectory of the Buddha’s teachings. Perhaps most surprising of all is the precision of Bucknell’s writing and argument. I expect works like this to be exhausting and difficult to read. But this book is lucidly argued and presented. A real revelation for me, and a wonderful surprise of a book!
We are thrilled to be back in Tucson, AZ for the first half of Advanced Teacher Training. We were just here in March for Practice & Teaching Week, so in some ways it feels like we never left.
For the Advanced training, we will spend 2 1/2 weeks together in person. Then we will go our separate ways. Next April, the same group will meet again for the second 2 1/2 week session.
The purpose for the break is to give the trainees the opportunity to integrate what they've learned from the first session. They will each have a plan for their personal practice, homework assignments and a reading assignment. They will each have a meditation or pranayama practice which they commit to practicing daily.
This training is meant to develop teaching techniques but with a strong emphasis on personal practice and development. We examine texts, philosophies, critical thinking and fallacies, in order to examine how we relate to our idea of the self and the outside world.
Over the five weeks of training, we will practice and study several meditation techniques in order to become familiar with different methods of working with the mind. We will practice teaching exercises to better understand how we use our voice and how we are energetically perceived by our students or those with whom we interact.
The days are long and full!
We are humbled to be with such an advanced group of yogis. We look forward to this process and what unfolds as we unpack it day by day.
After several years of very slow progress, the Women of Yoga project is taking a few big steps forward! There are currently two parts to this project.
The first is a biography of Reba Rakshit. Reba was a Bengali circus performer and yogi with a truly miraculous life story. She moved from Comilla (in present day Bangladesh) to Kolkata around the time of the partition of India. She trained with Bishnu Charan Ghosh and became a sought after circus performer, doing stunts like taking motorcycles and elephants on her chest. She became incredibly famous during her time, and was wooed by celebrities and royalty.
A publisher has just signed on to release Strong Woman, a book about her life. It is scheduled to be released in 2023! In the coming months I (Ida) will finish researching and writing this book.
It's amazing how history will keep surfacing if you keep looking for it. Just recently, I was able to find record of Reba Rakshit attending school in North Kolkata. (Thanks to the current principal of Peary Charan Girls school who sifted through years of records!)
The second part of the project is a formal research project into women in yoga. I'll be heading to Cambridge University shortly to start this project.
This project will look at how women were not included in the practices of hathayoga prior to the twentieth century. Then in the last 100 years, women began both practicing and teaching yoga.
This project will aim to shed light on this transition and illuminate the cultural forces that initiated this shift. I also hope to bring awareness to early female yoga teachers and the roles they played in charting this new territory.
More to come.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
- 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