Being as jet lagged as we are, everyone is awake at 3 or 4am. Many of us get up to practice some yoga before the regulars arrive at 6am. Once they arrive, the locals practice their prescriptions in the large rooms which are separated by men and women. I practice with the men for awhile, working on some neck and shoulder exercises that Muktamala taught us yesterday. I’m not sure if it is my newness, my height or my white skin that draws the stares. After awhile I retire to a more private place to practice nauli and some breathing exercises. Ideally I would be comfortable practicing in front of so many strangers, but I feel far more at ease in private.
To practice, the men strip down to their undershirts and boxer shorts. It is no wonder that they separate men and women. I am not sure what the women wear, but this is nothing like the spandex-clad, group-led, quiet and focused yoga classes we have in the States. The men chat and are distracted. They check their phones and futz about, occasionally doing their exercises. It is more like a men’s club locker room than anything I would think of as a yoga studio. Strangely, I have yet to see anyone practice a yoga “asana.” Everyone is doing simpler, therapeutic exercises. I think that these exercises precede the practice of asana, but I am not sure. I hope to learn that in the coming weeks.
Training this morning finishes the practical instruction of the pelvic exercises and moves on to almost 20 exercises done on the back. We write down descriptions and explanations of each exercise before trying it ourselves.
For the second day in a row, we go across the main road to a little convenience store that has bottled water, sparkling water and soda. It is a little luxury to drink a cool sparkling water. It feels like home in the mouth and the stomach.
Conversation lingers after both breakfast and lunch. We discuss the benefits of practicing at different levels of heat. Jeff and Mardy have a non-profit organization that sponsors studies about yoga. They are just finishing one about the benefits of practicing the 26 at different temperatures. Jeff talks extensively about nitric oxide, arterial expansion and glucose metabolism. I find it very interesting, glad that someone is doing this work. After lunch we discuss teaching with a set script, traveling and sticking to the “house rules” of each studio, students who wear earplugs and many other things.
I am exhausted by the evening training session, so I go to bed immediately afterward, skipping dinner.
The travel wasn’t as difficult as I remembered. Perhaps it is because we knew what to expect from the food, the flight times, the airports and taxis. Perhaps it is because we traveled the entire way with fellow yogis Jeff and Mardy. We arrived at the Calcutta airport at 2am local time and, through some small miracle, the taxi brought us directly here to the Ghosh school. Calcutta taxis have a way of getting “lost” on their way to even the simplest of destinations, partly because the city is so old, complex and poorly marked.
Jeff, Mardy, Ida and I arrived at the Ghosh school at about 4am. None of us could sleep, so Jeff and I stayed up talking with Jerome, who had arrived a few days prior. At about 5:30am, the three of us set out on a small walking excursion around the neighborhood, exploring alleyways, local landmarks, and the preparations for the upcoming Durga Puja celebration. The smells of Calcutta are unmistakable and impossible to forget. A combination of cooking, garbage, incense, excrement, smog and decay.
In our first class with Muktamala, we covered many exercises for breathing, shoulders and neck. Then we began discussing the pelvis. Our evening session was a long discussion about the benefits and contra-indications for several postures, also an in-depth exploration of a couple diseases.
The rest of the day was spent settling in to our accommodations here at the Ghosh house and resting. The jet lag and long day of travel create a unique form of exhaustion. The body gets hot, the mind gets fuzzy. The only cure is sleep and time. So I am trying to rest.
There are 9 of us here from the US. Jeff and Mardy are from Austin, Jerome from DC, two women from New Orleans and two women from LA.
Tomorrow we fly for 22 hours to Calcutta, India. We will spend 5 weeks there studying at Ghosh's Yoga College of India, led by Muktamala Mitra, Bishnu Ghosh's granddaughter.
I am completely open to what we may learn. I have almost no expectations, other than to soak in the atmosphere of living in the Ghosh house and practicing in the rooms where BC Ghosh, Buddha Bose, Gouri Shankar and Bikram Choudhury practiced.
I plan to use much of my free time to continue and expand my pranayama practice, something that has brought me great comfort, joy and peace over the past few years. I feel ready to take it to the next level, and what better place to do that than India? (Admittedly, the air is not so good there.)
I also plan to write about the experience here in my online journal. I am starting a new "Category" on the right column called "Ghosh Study In India."
I am not
the culmination of my accomplishments
or the sum of my fears.
I am not
the memories of my disappointments
I am not
my habits, patterns
knowledge or work ethic.
I am not
even my mind
or my own perception of who I am.
Remove it all
until there is nothing left to hold on to.
There I am.
The highest honor we can offer our teachers
Is not to preach what they preach
Or to turn their lessons into dogma
To be slavishly followed.
The highest honor we can offer our teachers
Is to think for ourselves;
To be critical, to be discerning
And to be progressive in thought and action.
There are a few movements that we can not or do not do in most yoga practices. Pushups and pull-ups are among them. These two exercises strengthen some major muscles of the body that are otherwise neglected by yoga postures.
"What about Chaturanga?" you may ask? Chaturanga is a pushup-like motion that is intentionally done with the arms close to the body. The hands are low and the elbows close to the torso. This is done to prepare us for Upward Facing Dog posture, where we straighten the arms to bend the spine backward and stretch the chest, belly and hips. Chaturanga is great for setting up Upward Facing Dog, but it is hard on the arms and elbows. It purposely bypasses the chest muscles so that we may bend the spine backward in Upward Facing Dog.
The triceps and elbows are not designed to move the weight of the body, especially not repetitively. The chest muscles, on the other hand, are large and powerful, made for moving large loads. We can strengthen the chest muscles by doing pushups, with the elbows widened away from the torso, the hands a little wider than the shoulders.
Two other important muscles that get neglected in most yoga postures are the biceps and the latissimus dorsi. The biceps are the muscles that bend the arms at the elbows, so it is difficult to use body weight to develop them. (Far easier is to develop the triceps that straighten the arms. These are activated every time we use the arms to hold our body weight off the floor.) Pull-ups strengthen the biceps, lifting the body weight by bending the arms.
The latissimus dorsi are huge muscles that attach our arms to the lower back. It is thought that this is useful for hanging and swinging, a remnant of our descending from apes. The "lats" are powerful muscles that get very little exercise unless we hang from our arms. Pull-ups are great for that.
I like to approach the physical body with some logic and science. I've never been one to practice yoga as-is just because of 'tradition'. Pushups and pull-ups are two non-yoga exercises that allow us to develop large, important muscle groups that are otherwise neglected. This leads to even development of the body.
I regularly teach the 26 posture sequence developed by Bikram. I know the monologue associated with its instruction, but I get further away from it every time I teach.
There are inevitably moments that are the same in every class. Like the Sit-up, where the whole class is meant to do the movement together. These moments require a forceful, rhythmic use of the language that gets repeated several times. The class can simply do what I say as I say it, and the result is that they all do the Sit-up together.
But these unison, rhythmic movements are few and far between. I would even argue that they are the least yogic. I want to encourage my students to explore their own experience, to notice their bodies and minds, and to adjust what they need to adjust. I do not want my students to all take the same approach, move their bodies the same way, or even look the same in the postures.
Each day is different, and each student is different. Some need to work harder, some need to back off their effort. Some need to bend their spines more, others need to focus on their hips or feet. This is an inevitable challenge of teaching more than 2 or 3 people at the same time. But sticking to a scripted monologue adds a layer of restriction that prevents me from addressing each class, each day and each student appropriately.
There is the argument that a scripted monologue allows new teachers to guide their students with more precision and effectiveness than they would be able to otherwise, by using the words of their teacher instead of their own. This is true, though it ends up being detrimental to everyone over the long term.
New teachers are often thrust into a leadership role with a poor understanding of the body and the postures, relying too heavily on a script. Also they are prevented from making their own mistakes, enduring their own struggles on the way to developing their own language, tone and pace.
New teachers would be better served by studying the mechanics and purpose of each posture and sequence. They should be required to come up with their own language to guide the students based on their own experience of the yoga. That is the only way to keep the tradition alive and prevent it from becoming stagnant and dogmatic.
With so much going on in the past few months, I lost track of my practice of surrendering my accomplishments and embarrassments.
Each night as I lie in bed, I scan my ego for the things I am proud of. I release them, acknowledging that they are not me. I scan for anything I am ashamed of or afraid of and release them too. I become much lighter, much closer to my true self, I believe.
I am not the sum total of my accomplishments or fears. I am something else, perhaps I am nothing more than a construction of my own imagination. This practice of emptying the mind and ego humbles me, gives me perspective and strength to move forward in my life.
I recently began reading Bernie Clark's book Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. Bernie is at the forefront of the Yin movement, and I have been curious for awhile now about the purpose and intention behind the practice of Yin.
Yin Yoga, a practice with long holds (1-5 minutes), has been available at our home yoga studio for many years. I have taken dozens of classes. They are slow, occasionally relaxing and sometimes quite intense as the body opens up. One of our closest yoga teaching friends is the local authority on Yin.
Even though I have read several books and attended many classes, I have never been able to fully comprehend the purpose of the Yin practice. Is it for the tendons, ligaments, fascia or muscles? Is it even healthy for the body to stretch some of these tissues?
Bernie Clark's book is well-written and informative. He draws much of his knowledge and inspiration from martial arts, which is oddly comforting since I too started there. For me, the jury is still out on Yin Yoga. My understanding is growing, but I must admit that I am skeptical. I will continue to read and practice.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga