When we strive to be a better as a yogi, a spiritual practitioner or anything else, it is tempting to copy the traits of those we admire. We observe what great practitioners look like, how they carry themselves, what they say and how they act. While this can be helpful to observe, it is important to remember that emulating traits is not the same as doing the work.
This is taught in the Hatha Pradipika, Chapter 1.66:
"Success is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes nor by talking about it. Practice alone brings success. This is the truth, without a doubt."
It doesn't matter what we say, it matters what we practice. It doesn't matter what we look like, it matters what we practice. It doesn't matter how much we talk about our goals, it matters what we practice...
This also rings true outside of the yoga world.
There is a story about the famous jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins responding to a question about players copying him. He was asked, how do you feel about young saxophonists buying and wearing the same type of shoes you wear? He responded by saying, I hope they copy the important things too.
Let's not worry about the clothes. Let's just do the work.
Source: Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Trans: Brian Dana Akers, Yoga Vidya
We recently had the pleasure of visiting the Mysore Place for the first time. While many ashtanga yogis venture to Mysore in southern India, we usually travel to the north. That is where Ghosh Yoga comes from.
Mysore, however, is where surya namasakar and asana were combined in the early 1900s. This eventually led to "flowing" or "vinyasa" styles of yoga. This meant an acrobatic and performance based style of movement which was used for demonstration and entertainment.
In the Mysore region of India, it was thought that any kind of stopping or rest in practice was a waste of time. The benefits of the practice came from continuous movement.
However, in the north it was different. The principles that influenced northern styles of yoga were therapeutic function with the use of rest and stillness. The emphasis on stillness and rest within a practice originated at least in part from the influence of weightlifting. Ghosh himself was a bodybuilder and weightlifter. He wrote in his book Muscle Control:
"The first most important thing that should be kept in mind is that perfect relaxation of muscles is as good as hardest contraction to build up muscles. One should feel the thrill of relaxation which is most important."
Similar principles are found in other systems that originate in the north, such as the yoga taught by Sivananda of Rishikesh and his students like Swami Vishnudevananda.
It's important to note these regional differences. While today they are both called asana or yoga, the underlying principles of northern and southern styles are quite different.
Over the years, we have started to teach two different versions of Hands to Feet pose. We call these postures Hands to Feet A & B. There are several reasons for this, some of which are historical and others anatomical.
We will focus on the anatomical reasons in this blog, because we've previously written about the historical context. You can find that here.
So, what is the difference between the two postures?
Hands to Feet A is a forward bend of the spine. It uses the muscle of spinal flexion (rectus abdominis) to round the spine forward and bring the head toward the knees or thighs. If you have ever tried this posture, you probably noticed the intense engagement in the abdomen.
However, Hands to Feet B is a hamstrings stretch. In this posture, the pelvis tilts forward. Not only does this require hip flexor engagement, but it also engages the back of the spine. All of this is in services of the hamstrings lengthening. Then, by using arm strength, the upper body is pulled closer to the legs. This is not a forward bend of the spine. It does not use the muscles that bend the spine forward.
What does this mean in practice?
Either posture is worth practicing. It depends on what we are trying to accomplish. However, it's worth incorporating Hands to Feet A into the Half Moon sequence if we are trying to bend the spine in all directions. Otherwise, if we practice Hands to Feet B only, we bend the spine sideways and backward, but never forward.
Years ago, we were finalists for a job with Yoga Journal. We were excited at the potential of the opportunity. It would take us to many different places and immerse us in many different yoga communities.
But just as we started imagining what the job would be like, we were told we were no longer being considered. It was over.
We were disappointed. But then we realized that this was our chance to ask ourselves important questions: What was the yoga world missing? What could we try to build that would fill in these gaps?
It was at that moment that we decided to start Practice Week.
We wanted to create a space that was purely for practice and study. We had noticed that so often, the next step in a yoga practitioner's path is teacher training. But what about personal practice? Even if we choose to teach, we are all students of yoga first and foremost.
We had no idea if anyone would show up when we scheduled the immersion. We figured that if no one attended, we would practice by ourselves for a week.
But to our amazement, people did. Practice Week became a space where those new or experienced could gather, solely for the purpose of personal development on the path of yoga.
We have hosted Practice Week for years now. Each week is different because each one is influenced by the particular group that attends. Some individuals come back year after year, but each year their practice and their particular interests are different: this is progress. Practice Week is a time to explore these changes and recommit to progress in whatever way it may look next.
Sometimes we reflect on what would have happened if we got the job. We're glad we didn't. Instead... we practice!
All throughout this year, we are celebrating 100 years of Ghosh's College! Sri Bishnu Ghosh founded Ghosh's College of Physical Education in 1923 in Kolkata, India. The original building still stands strong today.
Since January, we have been talking about history and recording special classes for Patreon. Just recently we released a class based on Ghosh's book Yoga Cure.
We also have a very special free event scheduled for July 9th. This is an online class open to everyone. We will collect donations from anyone who is able to donate and pass them along to the College for renovation efforts. RSVP here.
In the next few months we will also be releasing some commemorative stickers and a very special hand made surprise! The proceeds from these treats will all go to renovating and restoring the iconic building in Kolkata. Let's make it stand 100 more years!
This blog discusses engagement of the pelvic floor, or what is called mula bandha, the root lock, in yoga.
To get where we are now, it's useful to start with a little history.
Prior to the 1700s, it was thought that the body was an alchemical vessel. Through manipulating the body, we could move the winds (vayu) or direct life energy upward (sometimes called kundalini). These were practices of hathayoga.
It was also believed that life force could leak out of the openings in the body. Therefore one would apply locks and seals (bandha & mudra) to various parts of the body to prevent energy from escaping.
One of these, mula bandha, involved the pelvic floor muscles.
Nowadays, these beliefs have been extrapolated to mean various things. Sometimes it's taught that pelvic floor engagement makes the body more "stable". Yoga International says that mula bandha is "stabilizing and calming" and "enhances the energy of concentration".
But in asana practice, this will not stabilize the body. Here's why.
The pelvic floor muscles to do not move the skeleton. Therefore, they cannot make the skeleton more stable. They attach to the opening in the bottom of the pelvis, between the tailbone and the pubic bone. When the pelvic floor muscles engage, they lift the organs above them and tighten the openings of the pelvis. (This is very different than muscles that cross a joint and move the skeleton.)
In short, they do not stabilize the skeleton in an asana, because they do not move the skeleton.
There is also concern about over strengthening the pelvic floor. This can lead to constipation and pain. Just like any muscle, too loose is not good but too tight is not good either.
In conclusion, it is good to consider whether engaging the pelvic floor is useful. If we are trying to manipulate the flow of subtle energy, it may be. If we are trying to stabilize the skeleton, it is not.
In this blog, we'd like to discuss three posture that are worth reconsidering and perhaps even removing from a posture practice. Will this be controversial? Perhaps. That's because there are many valid reasons to practice postures, some of which lie in tradition.
Asanas have long been part of a practice to transcend the physical body. One would put themselves in strenuous positions to burn karma. Or one would sit in an asana and meditate. Therefore it was of little concern whether one would injure the body or not.
We are not suggesting there is a right way to approach postures. However nowadays, many come to yoga to be healthy. Regardless of how we think about the practice as a whole, we should take into consideration what is happening in the body. After all, these are physical practices.
The first posture worth reconsidering is Standing Splits.
Here's why: In this posture, the pelvis tilts very far forward to allow for the upper body to come close to the standing leg. This lengthens the back of the standing leg hamstrings. However, because of the relationship to gravity, the standing leg hamstring is also the muscle exerting force. (This is eccentric contraction: the muscle gets longer while exerting force.)
This is potentially a compromised position for the hamstrings. The hamstrings are long and contracting. Then, when the lifting leg attempts to reach higher, the hamstrings are pulled even longer. This makes the hamstrings very susceptible to injury in this position.
What can we do instead: Balancing Stick is a great alternative. It builds balance and strength in the hamstrings but doesn't require an extreme range of motion.
The second posture worth reconsidering is Heron.
There is next to no therapeutic function for this posture. It is essentially a hamstring stretch on one side and a deep knee flexion on the other.
This puts both the knee and the hamstring in a compromised position. In order to sit upright enough to lift the leg, the pressure has to increase through the bent knee.
Therefore, the deeper you get into the posture, the more pressure is going through the knee. Just to sit in this position is already hyper flexion of the knee. Increasing the pressure while in this position is questionably safe.
What can we do instead: Paschimottanasana will stretch the hamstrings. Chair pose will flex the knees while stabilizing them and building strength in the quadriceps, and Firm will flex the knees without also requiring hamstring length.
Last but not least, it's worth reconsidering Shoulderstand.
This is probably the most controversial. That's because Shoulderstand is an older posture in yoga, predating the twentieth century. Iyengar, Sivananda and others famously included this posture as one of the gems of asana practice.
However this posture developed with the belief that life force exists in your head and drips into the abdomen. Therefore, one should turn the body upside down to preserve that life energy.
Regardless of how we feel about that belief, it is important to note the extreme flexion of the neck this position requires. In addition, the weight of the body is coming down through the neck. Those things together make this very hard on the neck. If we practice it, we should take great care to be safe.
What can we do instead: If we want to go upside down, we can practice Headstand or Tiger. These are admittedly more difficult in some ways, but they do not put pressure on the neck while it's flexed.
The new Foundations Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual is now available for pre-order. This book is a fully revised 2nd edition of what was formerly called the "Beginning". Here is a look at what the book contains.
The Four Foundations
This book contains the foundational building blocks for general physical health: relaxation, breathing, functional range of motion and balance. They balance the body and calm the mind while making the joints and muscles mobile and strong.
49 Postures & Exercises
This book explains and instructs 49 yoga postures and exercises that are useful for the function and health of the body, nervous system and mind. They include breathing exercises, standing postures for strength and balance, stretching postures for ease and mobility, and seated postures to enable breathing and meditation.
Know the Purpose
The purpose of each posture is explained, so you are never confused about the posture’s function or intention.
Sequences for Practice
11 sequences for practice of varying length and focus. Practices that focus on relaxation, balance, breathing or overall function. Ranging in length from 15 minutes to 90 minutes. There is a practice sequence here for every occasion.
Click here to learn more.
This blog is in celebration of 100 years of Ghosh's College in Kolkata: 1923-2023!
Spread the word: #100years #ghoshyoga
As some of you know already, for the past four years I (Ida) have been working on a biography of yogi/circus star Reba Rakshit. The manuscript was completed at the end of this year. It is scheduled to be published this year. Since it is International Women's Day, I thought I would share a little bit about the project.
Reba Rakshit has an incredible story full of tremendous challenges. She was alive during Indian Independence and the partition of India that came with it. She lived in a time where women had often very limited access to the world outside the home. Yet she was performing in the circus two, sometimes three times a day in front of huge audiences of admiring fans.
She was a student of Bishnu Ghosh at Ghosh's College in Kolkata, and taught therapeutic yoga later in her life.
I became interested in her story years back, while working with Jerome Armstrong on his book Calcutta Yoga. This project took me on many adventures. Here are just a few:
This is part of a larger project I am working on regarding women in yoga. Who were they? How did they get there? Why were women writing about yoga in the twentieth century in a way they were not before? There's a lot more to this project, but I'm still in the thick of it.
For now, Happy International Women's Day! I can't wait to share Reba's story with you all.
This blog is in celebration of 100 years of Ghosh's College in Kolkata: 1923-2023!
Spread the word: #100years #ghoshyoga
Nowadays, asana is often thought of in sequences. We practice set sequences like Bikram Yoga or the Ashtanga series. Many teacher trainings have a strong emphasis on "sequencing" and how to structure a class. This has become an essential part of learning how to teach a group class.
However in India, asana practice was and still is very individual. There are groups of postures, but only an accomplished teacher can select the right method of practice for each practitioner. Everyone is different so each person is assigned their own practice. There are certainly some yoga studios in India now that will teach sequences of asanas in group classes, but elsewhere it is still very much tailored to individual practice.
Let's look at some examples of how an asana practice was structured prior to the 1970s.
Buddha Bose & Dr Gouri Shankar Mukerji
In 1939, Buddha Bose writes about a large number of asanas. He classified them under six headings: Padmasana, Sitting postures, Reclining attitudes, Standing positions, Kurmasana or tortoise poses, and Mudras. These were organizational groups, not in an order for practice. We know this because he explains:
“I have also arranged the exercises in each series so that the easiest comes first and the most difficult last. The students should start by practicing a few exercises in each group (except those in the Kurmasana series) and then gradually work up to the more difficult ones.....No one, however skilled, should perform all of the asanas every day. It is better gradually to increase the duration of practice of each exercise than to strive to practice a large number of them for a brief period.”
Similarly, Dr Gouri Shankar Mukerji writes that:
“It is not recommended to perform more than five exercises in succession, in order to avoid fatigue. It is better to perform a few exercises, but in complete tranquility, than to execute ‘one’s program’ at all costs under time pressure....It is also not necessary to master all 88 exercises, but one should preferably choose those that are appealing, and that one thinks one can personally perform or learn.”
Self Realization Magazine
A third example can be found in the Self Realization Magazine. The magazine groups the postures into three groups: sitting, lying down and standing. This is similar to Bose's approach. Then the magazine states:
"A word of caution is in order here, however. Do not attempt all the postures listed in this article at one time! The list is only intended as a sensible guide from the simple to the most 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."
There are a few common themes we can highlight through these passages. First, is that these are lists or groupings of possible postures for practice. However, the instructions repeatedly say that not all of the postures should be done during the same practice. And furthermore, not all postures are necessary for everyone to practice.
84 Yoga Asanas by Buddha Bose
84 Yoga Asanas by Gouri Shankar Mukerji
Self Realization Magazine
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