This blog is part of the series about the hips.
The first movement of the hip we will examine is flexion. Technically speaking, flexion is movement in which the anterior surfaces of the limb move toward each other. Simply put, it is when the thigh moves closer to the upper body.
The hip flexes often. When we walk, jump or run, our hips flex and extend over and over again. This is a natural movement and one that isn't difficult for our body to comprehend. Let's look at the muscles in the body that make this motion possible.
Finally, the sartorius is a very long and thin muscle that runs from the pelvis to the tibia (shin bone). It is the longest muscle in the human body! It is perhaps the lesser known of the "hip flexors" but can play a moderate role in flexion.
The muscles that flex the hip are not huge, powerful muscles. Aside from addressing any significant imbalance, it is not particularly useful to focus on strengthening this part of the body. Instead it's usually worthwhile to work on developing the muscles that extend the hip. This will help lengthen the hip flexors.
In day to day life, the hip flexors are often in a shortened position. This has to do with how much we sit on a regular basis. When we sit, the hip flexors are short and they tend to stay that way even when we try to lengthen them. Back discomfort often comes from tight hip flexors (the psoas in this case). Tight hip flexors can also keep us from back bending affectively.
The hips are a big focus in asana practice. We may have heard instructions like open the hips, breathe into the hips, compress the hips, decompress the hips, or stabilize the hips. All of this begs the question, what are the hips? And what should we be doing with them?!
Let's start with the basics. The hip is a joint. This is important. It is the point of connection between the head of your femur (leg bone) and your pelvis. The hip joint has a relatively big range of motion, allowing us to walk, jump and move our legs forward, back and to the sides. It can rotate internally and externally, though in a much smaller range of motion than the previous movements. To complicate things further, the hips usually work in a combination of movements.
Because of the various ways in which the hip joint moves, there are many muscles or areas of the body we could be referring to when we talk about the hips. We will examine these in detail in the next few blogs. Before that, let’s consider a few other ideas about joints in general.
Any and all joints in the body are moved by muscles. Muscles move the body. Bones sustain the body's weight. Joints serve as connections between bones which enable us to be something other than a concrete statue.
Since joints need muscles to move, it’s not possible to affect a joint without using muscles. A cue to engage, stretch, or lengthen a joint can therefore be misleading. This may seem like splitting hairs, but our ability to understand the way in which our body moves is what gives us freedom in our practice. If we know exactly what we’re trying to do and how, progress comes easily.
Over the next few blogs we'll look at the different movements of the hips and how they relate to postures.
As students, we do not know what our teachers know. That is why we are a student. In order to learn, a teacher tells us something beyond our understanding. Then over time, we practice, study and integrate the information. As we do this, we have to balance our own consideration of the new information with the fact that we may not yet understand what we are learning.
Eventually, the information should make sense to us. We should know why we are doing what we're doing and how it works in the body or mind. This is where it becomes important that we don't just repeat words or actions without understanding the deeper meaning of them.
A good test is to check whether we can articulate the purpose of a certain posture, for example. Can we explain what the purpose is and how it is accomplished in the body? Can we back up our answer with greater anatomical understanding or textual support? To articulate this on our own, it means we can't just repeat what we've heard without it making sense to us. We have to truly understand.
As students of yoga, we should all seek to understand what we're doing. We should look to multiple sources to see how they correspond to each other, continue to question our understanding, come up with further areas to investigate or practice. Of course this will take time, and that's ok. Yoga is a practice, not a destination.
This is part of a series of blogs called Practice Tips.
As we expand our understanding of yoga, the amount of practices expand with us. We become aware of pranayama, meditation, more postures. We realize we could study texts, philosophy, or anatomy. Quickly, we realize there are so many directions we could go in. How do we choose?
There is no right or wrong answer. The best thing to do is to follow our interests. Choose what we are excited about and what intrigues us.
The best practice is the one that we'll do.
If we choose to focus on something that we are interested in, chances are we will actually come back to it on a regular basis. If we choose something that we should do, but don't care much about, chances are we won't.
This is not to say we should never practice something that we don't like. Of course, we should develop areas of weakness either in our practice or our understanding. But we need to be careful. We shouldn't choose only the things that we struggle with, if it will make us give up the practice entirely.
If there is a posture that excites you, practice that one everyday. If you're taking a class and the teacher doesn't include that posture, practice it after the class. Commit to your own interests and develop them. If you are interested in an old yogic text, start reading. Take it page by page.
One interest leads to another. Over time, we end up with experience in many different areas. But this doesn't happen all at once. Choose the practice that interests you today. The right practice is the one you'll do.
Therapeutic exercises are simple movements of the body that take the major joints and muscles through their functional range of motion. They are not fancy or particularly beautiful to look at, but they are quite useful to keep the body strong, mobile and painless.
These exercises are the basis for the yoga method taught at Ghosh's Yoga College in Kolkata, India. They are central to the goal of building and sustaining health.
Because modern life is full of imbalances — lots of sitting, hunching and looking at screens — our bodies and minds get out of whack pretty often. We get tight hips, tight lower backs, achy necks, tight shoulders, etc. Most often, these tight achy areas are directly linked to an imbalance in a major joint. On the opposite side of the tightness is weakness.
We use these Therapeutic Exercises as precisely as we can to target the issues in the body. Some exercises are good for balancing the lower spine — like the Torso Lift and Leg Lift — while others are good for balancing the upper spine — like Cobra and Full Locust. Still other exercises are useful for balancing the hip — like Squatting and Hip Hinge — or the shoulders — like Butterfly or Chest Expansion.
After years of consideration and discussion with the Ghosh family, we are finally releasing a book that contains more than 40 Therapeutic Exercises. We try to explain the use of each exercise as precisely as possible, both what it does in the body and what imbalances it is good for.
At the end of the book are a handful of practice sequences. You may know that 'sequences' are unusual in therapeutic yoga, as each person is different and gets a unique prescription. But we have identified a few of the most common issues and imbalances and provided sets of exercises to target them.
We truly hope that this book will be useful to you, whether you are a beginning student, have an injury, are a yoga teacher, a yoga therapist or a historian of this method.
The book is available for preorder here. It will ship on December 7.
This is the first in a series of blogs called Practice Tips.
When we start learning a new skill, it's brand new. We know nothing about it. Once we start learning a little bit about it, all of the sudden we know something. Even if it's the smallest piece of information or one brief experience, we just went from nothing to something. This is a big jump.
For example, when we try a new posture for the first time, it's really exciting! In that moment we go from never having done it before, to having direct experience of it. That is why in the beginning we can feel like we're growing so much. We feel like we're gaining so much experience and understanding even if what we are doing is challenging.
Then we plateau. We start learning about technique. If it's a posture we're working on, we might start to realize we're lacking understanding of anatomy. We might realize we have no idea how to breathe in the pose, or what the goal even is. All of the sudden we feel like we know nothing. We feel lost. This thing that we've been working on is showing us just how far we are from proficiency. All the sudden what we think we know comes into question.
Be careful here. This is not getting worse! This is what it can feel like to get better. In this moment, we get a glimpse of understanding beyond the level we're at. This is where we expand our understanding. This expansion is illuminating where we have room to grow. This is the very expansion that can and will push our practice forward. Embrace it.
We will always have moments where we feel like we don't know anything. Of course, this is not the case. We know what we know. If we continue on, we will expand what we know. This is what it means to practice.
Lately we keep hearing how hard it is to practice. We hear you. Many of us are at home, by ourselves, with no one holding us accountable. This is tough. We were used to warm and cozy studios, a routine, a community. Our yoga routines have likely changed considerably lately. While it's not easy, it's ok.
It's better than ok, because the practice is still here.
While we navigate loss, fear and a whole plethora of challenges, the practice itself hasn't wavered. It's there for the taking, anytime and anywhere. Let your practice be a source of stability.
Change of any kind is not often graceful or pretty. That is also ok. What matters is that we practice when it's hard just like we do when it's easy.
Practice is often seen as a sacred thing. We want the room to be quiet, our clothes to be nice, the temperature to be just right. That is nice when it happens but it isn't always the case. The important thing is to carry on. Don't wait for it to be perfect, just do it.
The nature of the heart is to beat. The nature of the lungs is to breathe. The nature of the mind is to think. The difficulty with thinking lies in the fact that not all thoughts are helpful. Therefore, we need to sort through them. We need to choose which ones are helpful and which ones are not.
We all have unhelpful thoughts. Remember, that's the job of the mind. It thinks! We can't blame it for having thoughts that aren't great. It's just trying to do its job. What we need to do is to ignore the thoughts that are unhelpful and only act up on the thoughts that are helpful.
We likely waffle between opposite thoughts on a regular basis. Here is an example:
"I don't want to practice at all."
"I'm going to practice right now."
Neither of these thoughts dictates what happens next. Only our actions dictate what happens. Either we follow through on the first thought or the second. This is the important part. It's here that we do the sorting.
Think of your mind as having an "unhelpful" bucket. Toss the I don't want to practice in the "unhelpful" bucket. Then, act on I'm going to practice right now.
Not all thoughts require action. This is important. We can choose which thoughts we want to act on and which ones we don't. Sort through your thoughts. Only act on the ones that take you in the good direction.
We spent the last year studying at SOAS University of London. Just recently, we finished the last of our work for their MA program Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. What a year! First, we nearly didn't make it due to a total visa and passport debacle. But last September, a week late, we arrived in London and dove right in. It was fitting then, that this March we left a week early. This time in the beginnings of a global pandemic. It was a not a dull year, that's for sure.
The program consisted of courses in Buddhism, Jainism, and what was called the Origins of Yoga & Meditation. We also chose to study Bengali to help us with our work in Kolkata. The language course was a nice break from the mountains of academic reading that the other courses entailed.
One of the other perks of being in Europe was our ability to travel and teach in communities we hadn't been to before. On our weekends, we'd pack up our homework, get on a train or plane and head to a yoga studio. Then Sunday evening, we'd head back to London in time to start up with classes again on Monday.
The final part of the program was writing a dissertation. Scott wrote about the emergence and meaning of early samadhi. Ida wrote about yoga in twentieth century Bengal. The style of writing was different than anything we were used to. It was certainly a challenge.
And now we're done! It was a whirlwind for sure, made even more so by the events of the past year. Now our task is to integrate what we've learned and experienced. We are excited to share it as best as we can.
This is part two in the series on Yoga in the World. Part one is available here.
Recently, we were asked to teach for the Biden campaign. We said yes. We did this because when we are asked to teach, we do. Unless we have a scheduling conflict, we teach because this is our job. However, this particular class angered many. Among messages ranging from calling us names to expressions of disappointment, we heard over and over that “yoga isn’t political”. It’s worth exploring this idea because yoga has been very political. Here’s what we mean...
Eastern religions were often promoted by kings. The emperor Ashoka for example, lived around 250 BCE. He was Buddhist. He promoted Buddhist dharma and emphasized social responsibility. This translated into developing a category of officers who were in charge of interacting with society and publicizing the dharma. This would be welcomed if you were Buddhist, less so if you were not.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior king Arjuna is instructed to go into battle by the god Krishna. This text, from around the turn of the common era, coincided with the emergence of feudalism. Essentially, nobility controlled the land and peasants were expected to work that land while indebted to the nobility for the chance to do so.
This presents a fascinating situation. As feudalism emerges so does a spiritual text which contains the concepts of bhakti and karma yoga. Bhakti yoga: whatever you are doing is yoga so long as you are devoted. Karma yoga: one should act without thinking of what they can get in return. Rather, they should dedicate the fruits of their labor to a higher purpose.
There are many interpretations of these ideas. Certainly it can seem controversial to present them in this way. However, it's worth at least considering what the role of devotion and renouncing the fruits of your actions could mean in a feudalist society.
More recently, and perhaps more to the point, is the role of yoga in twentieth century India. Prior to Indian independence in 1947, tension was growing and Indian nationalism building. One focus of Indian nationalism was developing strength. This meant strength and health for the individual as well as the nation. Since the purpose was partially to take back power from the British, indigenous practice was the focus. What did this mean? Yoga.
Yoga, specifically asana and bayam (positions done in motion) and Surya Namaskar were incorporated into Nationalist organizations.
Even today yoga is seen as a politicizing tool. For example, some are skeptical of the International Day of Yoga founded by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many feel that Modi's Hindu national policies overshadow the mission of using yoga to promote health and wellbeing.
We all have personal views on what we believe yoga should and shouldn't be. As ideas challenge our personal beliefs, we can get frustrated, sad, disappointed and angry. This is normal and a part of the growing process.
As yogis, we can embrace what challenges our beliefs. After all, our beliefs are constructs of the mind. Yoga can help illuminate these constructs.
Najar, Nida (2015) "International Yoga Day Finally Arrives in India, Amid Cheers and Skepticism" in NYTimes, read more
Thakur, Vijay Kumar (1980) "Social Roots of the Bhagavad-Gita" in International Association of Sanskrit Studies.
Thapar, Romila (1960) "Ashoka and Buddhism" in Past & Present Vol. 18, Issue 1. 01 Nov 1960.
UN: International Day of Yoga, read more
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.
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