We have not been back to Kolkata for more than two years. Not since before COVID. I was worried that the place would feel strange or distant, or that I would struggle in an attempt to recreate a feeling that I had in the past.
But it is not that way. Of course, this part of the world moves at a different tempo than where I am from. Its rhythms, sounds, food, smells and words are different. Even the light is different. But it is comfortable and friendly, and the people are generous once you get past the big-city anonymity and prickle.
Above all, it has been profound to reconnect with friends whom I have not seen in years, separated by thousands of miles and closed borders. And new friends whom I am meeting face-to-face for the first time after countless hours staring at their likeness on a computer screen.
Our Bengali is passable. It has been exciting, exhausting and humbling to stumble through interactions with the vocabulary and grammar of a child. I am in awe of all these people who function in three different languages everyday. The city is layered with proclamations in Bengali, Hindi and English.
Finally, to paraphrase what I would say in Bengali: In leaving, sadness comes.
When it comes to stretching in an asana, we feel all types of things. We may register this as good, or bad, or wonder if we have any idea at all what we're feeling.
Here we hope to illuminate some concepts to help assess whether something is just a muscle relaxing, or whether what we're doing is risking an injury. Essentially, whether this is a good stretch or bad.
Bear in mind, what is happening in the body can be very individual and no blog or general assessment can replace individual feedback from a qualified teacher.
That being said, here are some things to consider.
STRETCHING A MUSCLE SAFELY
Muscle fibers have the ability to stretch. This means they can lengthen and relax. This is different from tendons or ligaments, which are not meant to stretch.
When we stretch a muscle, we always want to feel the stretch in the middle of the muscle. This means that we feel it halfway between the muscle's two attachment points. This is generally where the muscle is safe to stretch.
Let's take the example of the hamstrings. These are muscles that work to bend (flex) the knee. Generally speaking, the hamstrings attach by the sit bones and by the knees. Safe stretching is halfway between these two points.
If we practice a position like Standing Separate Leg Stretching and we feel an intense sensation on the middle and back of our thighs, this is likely safe. As long as we're gentle, this is just the hamstrings lengthening.
However, if we feel the stretch by the muscle attachment points, this is no longer safe. In the same example, this means a feeling up high by the sit bones, or down behind the knees.
It's easy to feel anything and think "I'm tight" but this is not always the case. If the muscle attachment points are being pulled it will lead to over-stretching or even an injury over time.
BASIC CONCEPTS TO REMEMBER
While knowing how to safely stretch does mean we need to know a little bit about anatomy, don't be deterred by this.
Think about what joints are being affected. In our example of the hamstrings, the two joints affected are the hips and knees.
You can follow this general rule:
If you feel a stretch right by a joint, this is not good. If you feel it halfway between two joints, this is likely safer.
Remember, if you have any doubt whether what you're doing is safe, stop. Asana is a physical practice and the body can get injured from time to time.
The 26+2 Modifications book is now available in Portuguese!
Those who have seen the English version already know that this manual includes descriptions, purpose and modification for the 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises (known as Bikram Yoga).
This book is designed for teachers, to deepen the understanding of the postures and practice. It will help teachers make the class more accessible to older, weaker or injured students.
Our hope for offering this manual (and hopefully other manuals) in various languages is to help make yoga accessible, safe and beneficial for anyone who is eager to take up the practice.
More on this manual and a sample page below:
O propósito deste livro é tornar a sequência das 26-posturas, conhecida como Bikram Yoga, mais acessível a estudantes de mais idade e àqueles com lesões. Ao oferecer simples modificações, podemos frequentemente remover dores e prejuízo na execução de uma postura enquanto mantemos sua função primária e benefício.
O mais importante elemento desta abordagem é simples: Identificar o propósito central de cada postura, de forma que quando necessitamos modificar nós possamos preservar o(s) principal(is) benefício(s). A primeira seção de cada postura neste livro é dedicada ao “Propósito”, onde descrevemos a função primária. Quando apropriado, propósitos secundários e terciários são descritos.
Prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, yoga asanas (postures) were primarily seated positions. For the most part, they were not practiced for physical strength or health. In his book Yoga Body, Mark Singleton illuminates the influence of weightlifting and other physical cultures on what becomes yoga "asana".
Today, an "asana" can mean nearly any physical position. Aside from some positions that come out of hathayoga, many others draw their roots from contortion, muscle control, wrestling, gymnastics or calisthenics.
WARRIORS, TRIANGLES AND LUNGES
Hathayoga texts do not contain postures like warriors, triangles or lunges. (This is not to say that no one ever stood in a lunging position, only to say that they were not part of yoga.) However, these positions feature in physical culture manuals like Sandow's System by Eugen Sandow from 1894.
In Sandow's System, lunging positions are taught as "Heavy-Weight Exercises" and situate the legs in such a way to allow for an overhead press of a heavy weight.
However, if we remove the weight, these same positions are what we today call "Warrior 1", "Reverse Warrior" or, as in the case above, "Triangle".
INFLUENCE ON GHOSH
The impact weightlifting had on Bishnu Ghosh and his students is well documented. Ghosh's first book is Muscle Control and Barbell Exercises and contains nothing called asana or yoga.
Ghosh's early student Buddha Bose writes in his book Key to the Kingdom of Health Through Yoga (Vol. 1) about the influence of physical culture and even Sandow himself:
"I have seen hundreds of physical cultists with mighty muscles, sportsmen of great proficiency, powerful wrestlers, champion swimmers and clever boxers with immense powers of endurance and have respected the determination and ability which produced their skill." (p. 6)
He then writes about the "powerful physique as is possessed by men like Sandow" (p. 6).
While Ghosh, Bose and many other teachers of yoga from the first half of the twentieth century go on to teach asana, the influence of weightlifting appears to continue.
Even a position like the sit-up found in Bikram Yoga is extremely similar to the position shown with weights in Sandow's System.
Sandow instructs that "it should at first be performed without the dumb-bells, then with dumb-bells of increasing weight" (p. 215).
The sit-up, Sandow writes, "is designed to bring into play the rectus abdominis and other muscles of the abdomen, and has an important effect on the digestion" (p. 215).
Over 100 years later, Choudhury writes in Bikram Yoga that "the sit-up strengthens and tones the abdomen, invigorates the body and increases the flexibility of the spine" (p. 164).
The influence of calisthenics or contortion on yoga asana is seamless. Neither of these practices incorporate apparatus or weights of any kind. Since asana is also a bodyweight practice, this is an easy transition.
However, weightlifting uses equipment. When weightlifting positions mix with calisthenics or yoga asana, it is interesting to note what happens. Are we simply forgetting about the kettlebell every time we do a Warrior pose??
Bose, Buddha. 1939. Key to the Kingdom of Health Through Yoga-Vol.1.
Choudhury, Bikram. 2007. Bikram Yoga
Ghosh, Bishnu. 1930. Muscle Control.
Sandow, Eugen. 1894. Sandow's System.
Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body.
In just a few months, we'll begin the 300 Hour Ghosh Yoga Advanced Teacher Training program. This is a program that has been in the works for quite some time. It is geared toward those who are exploring the practice and study of yoga at an in-depth level.
Just recently, we published the full curriculum. (You can find it here) While this program is "advanced", we do not consider that to mean that deep and complex physical postures are the only path forward for serious practitioners. While the body is one aspect of practice, the breath, the mind and ultimately, the inquiry into the self are other important aspects of yoga.
We've designed the curriculum to tackle ideas of the self by examining concepts of thought, belief, faith, knowledge & truth. As we explore the mind we will look at different meditation practices. These are documented in various texts and traditions. We will study texts as well as look at what modern research has to say about the practice of meditation.
Personal practice will be a large component of this course. This means physical, muscular practice and it also means breathing practices. A seated pranayama practice will be taught and cultivated.
We are excited to dive in deeply alongside those committed to the exploration of yoga. As we learn, we continuously recommit to study and practice. The path is ever unfolding.
Last week, Scott and Ida had the pleasure of attending the YDYS 2022 Conference in Krakow, Poland. The conference was co-hosted by Jagiellonian University Institute for the Study of Religions (Krakow) and the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies (London). The aim of this academic conference is reviewing and discussing recent developments in the field of Yoga Studies.
Over the course of 4 days, there were over 50 papers presented by scholars from all around the world. The topics varied widely, from discussions of gender and abuse, to yoga in Poland, yoga in central and South America, to new translations of unknown texts.
The team of scholars that is working on a critical edition of the Hathapradipika presented their progress. It seems that this text, as vital and influential as it has been for centuries, has been in a corrupted state for centuries.
We recently had the pleasure of working with the staff of Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, AZ. In addition to giving lectures on breathing and mindfulness techniques, teaching asana classes, we got to meet the elephants and tour the zoo! Lucky us!
Reid Park Zoo is at the forefront of addressing animal care staff well-being which leads to animal wellness.
Staff at Reid Park Zoo carefully monitor animal wellness on a regular basis. They look for appropriate behaviors to make sure the animals are acting similarly to the way they would in the wild.
Under the vision and direction of Sue Tygielski, Reid Park Zoo is incorporating yoga asanas, breathing & meditation to help reduce stress and anxiety in the animal care staff. This in turn, helps the animals.
These techniques are primarily simple breathing and mindfulness meditation practices which have been shown to reduce stress and burnout.
For more details, enjoy the short clip below.
Well done to the Reid Park Zoo team for addressing the link between animal care staff well-being and animal wellness! We are so happy to be a part of it.
It is often thought that posture sequences are important. The order in which we practice the postures can prepare us for one that follows, develop skills that move us toward a "peak" pose, keep us out of injury, or facilitate a group of people to move together cohesively. Sequences can also link us to history. However, through a historical lens, we have to take into consideration how sequences came to be and the methods they were built upon.
GROUPS OF POSTURES
Yoga poses were grouped by the orientation the body had to the floor.
Seated postures were one group, kneeling another. Standing was different than reclining. This meant that anything that was done standing was done within the same section of practice, regardless of what the body was doing while standing.
This is certainly the case in Bikram Yoga. Postures are done in the order: 1) standing, 2) reclining, 3) kneeling, 4) sitting.
If we view Bikram's sequence this way, it makes sense that a posture like Cobra is done in the reclining section despite the fact that it is simpler for the body than the Standing Backbend or a backbend standing on one leg (Standing Bow). It also makes sense to have Fixed Firm, Half Tortoise, Camel and Rabbit postures — that do very different things with the body — grouped together, as they are all done from a kneeling position.
There is historical precedent for this method of practice as early as 1939.
Buddha Bose instructs, "I have classified the exercises under the six headings as follows: 1) Padmasana, 2) Sitting Postures, 3) Reclining Attitudes, 4) Standing Positions, 5) Kurmasana or Tortoise Poses, 6) Mudras." He goes on to say:
Students should start by practicing a few exercises from each group ... and then gradually work up to the more difficult ones.
In the 1950s, Yoga Postures for Health (compiled from the Self-Realization Magazine founded by Paramahamsa Yogananda) presents a similar idea. It states:
The various postures may be grouped naturally into three general divisions for learning: sitting postures, lying-down postures, and standing postures. Do not attempt all of the postures listed in this article at any one time! This list is intended only as a sensible guide from the simple to the more difficult asanas in each of the three categories. Practice only a few at any one time, and continue practicing those few until you perfect them before you attempt another group.
When thinking about a yoga sequence, it's important to take into consideration the values of sequencing itself. What informs the order? Is it that the postures are related in their use of the body? Or the use of opposing muscle groups? Or is it orientation to the floor or how a group can move together gracefully? There are no right answers here. However, if we expect a sequence to accomplish something specific in the body, but our sequencing is based on something else, this can lead to confusion.
Bernard, C. & Tesniere, B. 1950s. Yoga Postures for Health.
Bose, Buddha. 2015 (1939). 84 Yoga Asanas.
Over the past few years, we have researched the origin and evolution of several postures and practices in this lineage. We thought we would gather them all together in one post, with convenient links.
Probably the most significant single piece of research we've done was organizing the postures taught by Bishnu Charan Ghosh and several of his prominent students. We found 113 total postures, with 27 of them that seem to have been central during Ghosh's lifetime. The full list is here, in all its detailed glory.
Of course, many of the postures in modern yoga trace back to the late hathayoga era, as physical practice was blossoming. It is noteworthy that all 10 of the older postures in Bikram's class were in the Gheranda Samhita, a text thought to be from Bengal (where Kolkata is).
Bow Posture, a staple of modern yoga, seems to have transformed in the 1920s. The posture dhanurasana is explained in hathayoga texts, but it was probably a different posture. Then, the modern backbend came became popular, and is now one of the most recognizable yoga postures.
Triangle Posture came into modern yoga in the 1920s, probably under the influence of gymnastics and calisthenics. But it wasn't until the 1970s that Bikram Choudhury transformed the posture into a deep sideways lunge that resembles a bodybuilding pose.
Tree Posture is old by any measure. But it has curiously changed names several times, called anything from ardha chandrasana to ardha padasana, vrikshasana to tadasana.
Modern Camel Posture, ushtrasana, seemingly came out of nowhere in the 1930s before completely overtaking the older version in the 1960s. Camel Posture has never looked back!
Standing Bow Posture is such a new phenomenon that it is hard to even trace where it comes from. Probably some combination of dance and gymnastics, and probably from the south of India. Bikram Choudhury seems to have evolved this posture into its modern form.
Second editions are in the works!
The first two manuals we ever released were the Intermediate and Beginning manuals. We started with the Intermediate, which may seem like an odd place to start.
We never intended to publish more than one manual. All we planned to do was capture the "intermediate" postures we had been learning and practicing. We hoped we could arrange them in a way that others could use.
As we were learning, we had notebooks full of scribbled notes that didn't end up always making sense to us later. Sometimes we couldn't remember what body part went where, or what exactly we were supposed to be doing. We took the time to make something we hoped would be clear and helpful. Essentially, we wanted to make the manual that we wish we had had.
Now, quite a few years have passed and we feel it's time for an update!
We take the need to evolve and reassess what we are teaching very seriously. We believe that as teachers, we have to teach the absolute best we can with the tools and information available to us at the time. This is what we did when the manuals were first written. However, since then a lot has changed.
In the past handful of years, we have been lucky to have conversations with so many teachers and students around the world. We have been able to see practices evolve in real time, and watch as people adjust their postures. We have been able to hear questions, and listen to what has and hasn't worked for people. As students ourselves, we have learned, studied and practiced as much as we were able.
We feel that it's of vital importance to always try to learn and refine what we practice and what we teach. This is because research is always being done, people are evolving, situations are changing.
Because of all of this, we are ready to take the next step with these early manuals! We want to evolve in the language we use, the information we present, and in some cases the postures themselves.
We look forward to sharing the second editions with you this summer.
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