Read about the premodern version of Bow Posture, dhanurasana, here.
For the past 100 years or so, Bow Posture is done lying on the belly, holding the feet or ankles, and bending the body backward, as pictured above in 1925. Prior to that, the posture seems to have been done sitting and pulling the feet toward the ears. The question remains: Where and when did the posture transition into its modern iteration?
These premodern prone backbends are not called Bow Posture. By 1925 when Yoga Mimamsa publishes instruction, the modern die for dhanurasana seems to be set.
Kuvalayananda's book Popular Yoga Asanas from 1931 also includes Bow Posture, which is no surprise since it is drawn largely from issues of Yoga Mimamsa.
Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda in 1934 is curiously devoid of the posture. It makes one wonder about the influence of the Sritattvanidhi above.
Nearly every modern text that we examined contains the posture, from North India's Shivananda lineage, East India's Ghosh lineage, South India's Krishnamacharya lineages, to Europe.
All the students of Bishnu Charan Ghosh include Bow Posture in their instructions. This includes Buddha Bose (above), Labanya Palit in 1955, Ghosh himself in 1961 (demonstrated by his daughter Karuna), Dr Gouri Mukerji in 1963, Monotosh Roy in the 60-70s, and Bikram Choudhury in the late 60s.
Iyengar, in his hugely influential Light On Yoga, is specific about where to carry the body's weight and also to keep the knees slightly apart: "Do not rest either the ribs or the pelvic bones on the floor. Only the abdomen bears the weight of the body on the floor. While raising the legs do not join them at the knees, for then the legs will not be lifted high enough." (Iyengar 1966: 101-2)
The instruction and performance of Bow Posture has been mostly consistent from about the 1920s. It is still unclear when it transitioned from the premodern, seated version into the prone backbend. Its hyper-modern shift to greater depth that resembles contortion more than dhanurasana is also interesting, but a topic for another time.
Bow Posture, dhanurasana, is one of the few postures of premodern Hathayoga that is not a seated, cross-legged, meditative position. Its first known instruction is from the 15th century in the Hathapradipika, and it is also included in the 17th century Hatharatnavali and the 18th century Gheranda Samhita. Interestingly, these premodern versions of Bow Posture may be different from the modern understanding.
The modern version of Bow Posture, which has been prominent for the past 100 years or so, is done lying on the belly, holding the feet or ankles, and bending the body backward. Prior to that, the posture seems to have been done sitting and pulling the feet toward the ears.
Bow Posture's earliest known instruction is in the 15th century Hathapradipika: "Bring the toes as far as the ears with both hands as if drawing a bow. This is Dhanurasana" (HP 1.25). (1)
The Hatharatnavali from the 17th century repeats the Sanskrit instructions word for word. Here is a different English translation: "The big toes are held with the hands and are pulled up to the ears (alternately). Thus, one assumes the shape of a stretched bow. This is dhanurasana" (HR 3.51). (2)
This posture is done sitting and pulling one foot to the ear as the other leg stays straight, making the body look like a drawn bow. There are two ways that the instruction has been interpreted, depending on whether the hand grabs the foot on the same side of the body or opposite. So this posture has been interpreted as pictured at the top, with the hand pulling the same side foot toward the ear; or with the leg crossing the body as pictured directly above. The instruction is not specific, making it likely that crossing the body is not intended.
Nowadays, these positions are still taught sometimes. They are often called akarna dhanurasana, which means Bow to the Ear Posture; or akarshana dhanurasana, which means Bow Pulling Posture.
Bow Posture is also in another well-known premodern text, the Gheranda Samhita, from the 18th century. The instruction has changed a little from the Hathapradipika and Hatharatnavali: "Stretch the legs out on the ground like a stick, extend the arms, hold both feet from behind with the hands, and make the body curved like a bow. That is called Dhanurasana" (GS 2.18). (3)
The interesting new instruction here is that the feet are held "from behind". Some interpret this as bending the legs backward and holding the feet, as one does in the modern backbend. But it is entirely possible that this is the same posture as instructed earlier, and the cue to hold the feet from behind is not particularly ground-breaking.
The first words in this instruction, to "stretch the legs out on the ground like a stick", are identical to the instructions for Stretching Posture, paschimottanasana. This is perhaps a clue that the Bow Posture in the Gheranda Samhita is intended to be done sitting down with the legs stretched forward.
It seems most likely that the premodern Bow Posture was intended to be seated, pulling the toes toward the ears. The questions arise: When and why did it shift to the modern understanding of a prone backbend? As we will explore next, it seems to be established as the 'modern' Bow Posture by the 1920s.
(1) Akers, Brian Dana, trans., 2002 Hatha Yoga Pradipika NY: YogaVidya.com
(2) Gharote, M.L., Devnath and Jha, editors, 2014 Hatharatnavali Lonavla Yoga Institute: Pune 
(3) Mallinson, James, trans., 2004 Gheranda Samhita NY: YogaVidya.com
While those based in the West may not immediately know his name, Dr Dibyasundar Das is a significant figure in the yoga lineage of Bishnu Charan Ghosh. He died Wednesday morning at the age of 68.
His family looms large in the yoga of Kolkata, including his sister, Kushala, and his brother, Premsundar. (Dr Premsundar Das is best known in the West.)
Dr Das devoted his life and work to serving and bringing relief to many through therapeutic yoga and homeopathic medicine. He was trained by none other than Bishnu Charan Ghosh, as well as Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji and Sananda Lal Ghosh.
In 1986 he founded the World Yoga Society to greater serve individuals as well as train others through courses in Yoga Therapy. Its youtube channel is extensive.
Today his photos line the walls at Ghosh’s College displaying how important he is to this tradition of yoga. Further testament to his skill and achievements live on in the many lives of those who he helped.
Our best wishes go out to his family and loved ones.
Triangle Posture - Trikonasana - is a relatively new addition to the physical practices of yoga. Along with most other standing postures, Triangle is absent from the texts of Hathayoga. It makes an appearance in the 1920-30s as yoga in India is becoming more exercise oriented. This makes it strange to speak of something like a 'traditional' Triangle Posture, since its use in yoga has yet to hit the hundred-year mark.
Below we have traced the transmission and progression of Triangle Posture through the last century, especially in Kolkata and the Ghosh Lineage. Among the students of Ghosh, it was consistently practiced for decades since its earliest iteration in 1938 with Buddha Bose. In the 1960s the posture disappears before being reborn as a deep sideways lunge. This is seen in Bikram Choudhury and Jibananda Ghosh but nowhere in Kolkata itself. It seems that this is an influence from bodybuilding, though it is unclear exactly when, where and why the change occurred.
It would appear that the evolution of Triangle Posture into a deep sideways lunge shows influence from bodybuilding. It is unclear if this is an innovation of Choudhury himself, or if it occurred more generally around the time when he was learning. Evidence of bodybuilding's influence on Choudhury's instruction is visible in other places as well, including the instruction to 'lock the knee'.
Triangle Posture itself is a relatively new addition to 'yoga' practice, probably being adopted in the 1920-30s along with other standing, exercise-based positions and movements. After its adoption as a yogic asana, it was relatively stable in its practice for decades. In the Ghosh lineage, it was done with one knee slightly bent, the torso parallel to the ground, and one hand touching the foot. In the 1970s, the posture underwent a significant change, perhaps being reinvented entirely, turning into a deep sideways lunge that resembles a bodybuilder's pose. This version is taught by Choudhury and his students.
For another posture that underwent significant development and change in the 1960-70s, see the Standing Bow Posture.
(Thanks to Jerome Armstrong for the insight about bodybuilders.)
Mula bandha is a somewhat common technique in modern yoga. It is generally accepted that this technique, which means 'root lock', is a contraction of the muscles of the pelvic floor. Some interpret this to be the perineum, the anus, or a combination of the muscles in the pelvis. The anatomical specifics of how and when to do mula bandha are not the goal of this article. Today we are looking at where the practice comes from, and perhaps why it was developed.
The instruction of mula bandha dates back to the early days of Hathayoga, around the 12-13th centuries CE. At this time, Hathayoga was gradually forming out of the tantric beliefs of Buddhism and Shaivism. Alchemy, the attempt to forge new substances, was widely accepted, and the spiritual seekers began practicing an 'inner alchemy' where the magic happens inside the body of the yogi.
According to this alchemical belief, the inner elements of a person could be forged to create immortality, divinity or great power. As Shaivism (the worship of Shiva) became more prominent in Hathayogic teaching, the concept was related specifically to the awakening of kundalini, a latent power of pure consciousness. The way that kundalini is awakened is by manipulating the 'winds' of the body, some of which naturally go up while others go down.
In Hathayoga, mula bandha is specifically intended to take the downward-moving 'wind', called apana, and push it upward. Once the apana wind is turned upward, it is fanned with the abdomen to heat it. Then it combines with the upward wind, called prana. The combination creates an inferno that awakens and raises kundalini. Below is an excerpt from the Hathapradipika, perhaps the best known text on Hathayoga:
As you can see, mula bandha is specifically intended to turn apana upward, where a whole series of events follows. This description of mula bandha is present in almost all the texts of Hathayoga. Here is one other, from the Goraksasataka, translated by James Mallinson. I include it because it is pretty elaborate and well-explained:
This explanation continues to the modern day, though it is rarely incorporated in common yoga posture classes that remove esoteric or spiritual overtones. For obvious reasons, a simple muscular contraction is far easier to teach and understand than a detailed metaphysical system of bodily winds and latent spiritual energy. Nonetheless, Swami Sivananda and his students like Vishnudevananda explain mula bandha similar to the older Hathayogic way.
Iyengar, in Light On Yoga, foregoes the apana-kundalini approach and explains mula bandha a little differently. He initially explains the bandhas as closing off "safety valves", which is reminiscent of the old way. But he goes on to interpret the term mula bandha as follows: mula means 'source', and bandha is 'restraint'. So mula bandha is the restraint of the mind, intellect and ego. This recalls Patanjali's famous definition of yoga at the beginning of the Yoga Sutras. Here is what Iyengar writes in Light On Yoga:
We don't think it's a stretch to say that this is a reinterpretation of the meaning of mula bandha. Separately, in modern practice and teaching mula bandha is sometimes taught as a physically stabilizing technique, again quite different from its original iteration.
What does it all mean?
Like so many things in yoga, the purpose of the practices can change so that they become unrecognizable. Does that make them less effective, useful or valuable? Perhaps. We think it is worth asking ourselves why we do what we do. What are the underlying reasons?
Personally speaking, we do not hold the belief that our bodies are populated by 'winds', as was apparently the belief for some time during the development of Hathayoga. We attribute our 'digestive fire' not to actual fire but to hydrochloric acid in the stomach. And we attribute urination and excretion not to downward-moving apana wind but to peristaltic movement of the intestines and contraction of the sphincters. Do these beliefs make something like mula bandha anachronistic? We think that they do.
Standing postures are rare in Hatha yoga. Most asanas are seated, lying down or upside down. (Of course, by Hatha yoga I am referring to pre-modern practices and texts. This was before practices of health and exercise made their way into yoga in the 19-20th centuries.) One of the few exceptions is Vrikshasana, the Tree Posture, which appeared relatively late, probably the 18th century in the Gheranda Samhita. Earlier texts including the Hathapradipika don't contain any standing postures.
Over the last few months I’ve been compiling materials to research the forgotten women of yoga. Through work in Kolkata, I came to know of a few names of women, some quite famous, who today are completely forgotten. The questions started piling up— why do so many women do yoga when it was thrust into the modern age largely (at least publicly) by men.
Through gathering texts and doing interviews, the layers of complexity grew.
One unanticipated layer is the talk of beauty when it comes to women and yoga. This isn't found in posture manuals for men, and isn’t about “radiance” or something that could be referenced in Haṭha texts. This is talk of things like “perfect breasts” and “thin waists”.
This made me think of my own journey in the yoga studio so far. The "no food is good food" was certainly a part of the community. I remember being complimented the most in class when I was incredibly sick with pneumonia and hadn't been able to keep any food but applesauce down.
Around that same time I was also injured. My hamstring was tearing but I was locking out my standing bow. (Worth it? No.)
Since then I stopped wanting to be injured and took up weight training. When my new trainer gave me 15 pushups as a warm up I balked! I couldn’t do one, yet I was one of the strongest at my yoga studio.
I have since gained 15lbs. And with it, the strength to run many miles, move hundreds of pounds, do pull-ups, (more than 15) pushups and most importantly, have the strength to stay injury free.
Since talking about injuries in yoga studios around the world, we've gotten a variety of responses. Some burst into tears and ask, “So it shouldn’t hurt? I’ve spent a decade thinking it was supposed to.” Some just shake their heads, acknowledge how obvious it is that a "healing" practice shouldn’t injure the body. Others though, respond with the predictable, yet disappointing response of, “Well I’m not injured. You weren’t doing it right.” Denial is powerful.
All of this combined has me thinking. Are we trying to be healthy or beautiful? Who is deciding this? Do we actually know what we’re doing?
It can be difficult to know what is real in this world. The methods of yoga, spirituality and science have developed to explore this question. Sometimes they come to the same answers, but sometimes they contradict.
As yoga teachers, we are often confronted with the problems of: 'Why do we do these things?' and 'What is right?' We usually look in three places to find answers: tradition, science and personal experience.
We at Ghosh Yoga are fascinated with tradition, and we have researched it, studied it, lectured on it and challenged it. We have written about the relationship of oldness and tradition, the Spirit of Tradition, and the sometimes misleading value of tradition.
With regards to these questions---what is real? and what is worth learning?---tradition plays an important role in yoga. Many of us are drawn to yoga because of its ancientness, sacredness and gravity. And the idea of lineage, teaching in the same way as you were taught, is a time-worn Indian method that has come to the West with yoga. At its best, a lineage links modern students with ancient teachers and sages.
We must take these things seriously. What did our teachers think and what did they teach?If we look in older texts, what was being taught hundreds or thousands of years ago? Most importantly, how do these apply to modernity? Can we extrapolate our own situations, thoughts and perspectives from ancient teachings?
In the past few centuries, scientific methods have developed that are centered around the reliability and repeatability outcomes. The sciences have improved our understanding of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and neurology among other things. We can apply this knowledge to the body and mind in yoga practice. But it can sometimes come into conflict with traditional understanding.
For example, humans did not know the intricacies of bodily anatomy until the 15th century CE. This is clearly depicted in art from earlier, where the body is only really understood by looking from the outside. Take this one step further inward, to the functioning of breathing, energy or the nervous system. These things have come into focus even more recently in human history.
Therefore, when we look to 'tradition' for physical, anatomical or physiological methods, we must take great care. How does the ancient understanding line up with modern understanding? If there is a discrepancy, is it clear where, why or when that may have occurred? And which do we trust?
(For the past few decades, increasing numbers of scientific studies are being done on the practices of yoga. Check out Pure Action.)
It may seem obvious to say, but all of these practices and traditions of yoga are intended to be put to use by actual living humans, like us. They only come to life when they are studied and executed. Those experiences we have and the inner knowledge we gain are hugely valuable, and one might argue that they are the central purpose of it all.
On the other hand, the root of all the spiritual traditions is that our ordinary knowledge and perception are lacking and misleading. We must look deeper and strive to understand what is difficult and hidden. So, partly, our experience is the most important element, but it can also be the most misleading if we are not careful.
TAKING THE THREE TOGETHER
When assessing the methods and goals of yoga, we constantly weigh the contributions of these three elements: tradition, science and personal experience. There are some instances when all three align. This is the case with Alternate Nostril breathing, a practice described in the ancient texts, explained clearly with the modern scientific understanding of the nervous system, and reinforced by our own experience. We are quite confident in the function of this practice.
Other practices are more difficult to justify. Inversions like Headstand and Shoulderstand were originally designed to prevent the falling of bindu from the head into the abdomen. Since that belief has fallen by the wayside, more modern practitioners try to ground the practices in physiological things like blood pressure or thyroid stimulation, which are questionable and unproven to the best of our knowledge.
Yogic practices may be anywhere on this scale, swinging from 'traditional' to 'modern', and scientifically proven to completely debunked. Not to mention the experiences we have when we try these things for ourselves. We only suggest that you are considered and thoughtful when practicing yoga.
A couple years ago we did a comparison of all the postures in significant publications from the Ghosh yoga lineage. There were a couple of surprises in that search. One of the most significant was the complete absence of Standing Bow Pulling posture in any of the texts. Why was this posture missing? Where and when did it come from? And how did it become so central to Bikram Choudhury's system of 26 postures that he developed in the 1970s?
Upon further research, it seems that Standing Bow Pulling posture is a descendant of a more difficult position, Lord of the Dance. But even Lord of the Dance is a recent addition to the yoga canon, appearing only in the 1950s or '60s. It seems that Lord of the Dance popped up in south India, perhaps coming from Indian dance, contortion and gymnastics, and quickly spread. Its transition toward Standing Bow Pulling didn't come until late in the 1960s.
Let's start at the beginning...
Obvious as it may be to state, Standing Bow Pulling and its predecessor Lord of the Dance posture (Natarajasana) are nowhere to be found in the pre-modern texts of yoga. As physical postures were becoming more prominent throughout the development of hathayoga, they were largely seated or lying positions. Almost no postures in hathayoga are done standing.
Even as we entered the 20th century and the fathers (sadly we don't know of many mothers) of modern yoga revolutionized the discipline, the acrobatics and deep stretching that we recognize today were still scarce. Early pioneers like Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, Krishnamacharya, Shivananda of Rishikesh, Bishnu Ghosh and Buddha Bose greatly expanded the number of positions in "yoga" through the 1920s, '30s and '40s, but still there was nothing resembling Standing Bow Pulling. At that point, yoga was largely adopting the practices of calisthenics and marrying the breath with relatively simple movements of the body.
This all makes Choudhury's Standing Bow Pulling posture fascinating and very new. It seems to be based on a modification or preparation for Lord of the Dance, which itself is a recent addition to the yoga asana canon. And further, this variation continues to be deepened and elaborated until it has become essentially a new posture in its own right.
1. Goldberg, Elliott. The Path of Modern Yoga. p395
2. Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. 2012 (1969).
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.
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