The Ghosh lineage has a tradition of a system of 84 asanas (postures). Both Bose’s (1938) and Mukerji’s (1963) books contain 84 postures. Bikram Choudhury’s “Advanced Class” is sometimes referred to as the “84 Asanas” even though it is more than 84 postures (it comes from a list of 91). Tony Sanchez teaches a sequence of approximately 104 postures but often refers to the 84 postures in the tradition.
84 is a sacred number in many spiritual traditions, representing a harmonious relationship between the individual and the universe. This harmonious relationship is also fundamental to the practice of yoga, so it is no wonder that yogis incorporate the number into their systems. The idea of 84 asanas is an ancient one, though most traditions actually teach more than that.
The Goraksasataka, a text from around the 13th century, states that there are as many Asanas as there are species of creatures, that Shiva has enumerated 84 asanas, and that out of all the asanas, only two are particularly distinguished. (GS 5-7) It goes on to describe Siddhasana and Kamalasana (another name for Padmasana or Lotus posture).
The Shiva Samhita, from about the 15th century, says that “there are eighty-four asanas of various kinds which I have taught. Out of these I shall take four and describe them.” (SS 3:96)
The Hatha Pradipika, popularly known as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from about the 15th century, agrees with the Shiva Samhita. It says “Eighty-four asanas were taught by Shiva. Out of those I shall now describe the four important ones.” (1:33)
The Gheranda Samhita, from about the 17th century, says, “All together there are as many asanas as there are species of living beings. Shiva has taught 8,400,000. Of these, eighty-four are preeminent, of which thirty-two are useful in the world of mortals.” (2:1-2) The text goes on to describe those 32 asanas, by far the most in any old yoga text.
As history has progressed and the practices of yoga have gotten more physical, the number of asanas that are actually instructed and practiced has increased. Today there are hundreds of asanas practiced in any given tradition, including Ghosh. But the symbolic power of the number 84 stays the same. In short, the idea of 84 asanas is a historic, sacred and symbolic one, not necessarily a practical representation of a tradition of actually 84 postures.
Excerpted from the upcoming Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual, Advanced 1
Last week was my 36th birthday. Like everyone else, I have had fear of growing older, as my youth gets farther behind me with each passing day. I suppose it is no surprise that we fear getting older when youth is all we know.
I must be at the perfect age. All young people, teens and 20s, upon hearing that I'm 36, look at me with a pity reserved for elders and out-of-touch dinosaurs. On the other hand, when I tell anyone over the age of 40 that I am 36, they look at me with the glimmer of hope and possibility. "You are so young," they say, "with so much of your life ahead of you." What conclusion can I draw other than I am at the perfect age, neither too young nor too old. Balanced in the middle of life. (My true hope is that I feel this way with every passing year, though that can't possibly be the case.)
As we edit our forthcoming Advanced Practice Manual, I am drawn over and over again to this variation of Dancer Posture. A full backbend, with the foot touching the head, while standing on one leg. It is a near-perfect expression of balance in all things: mobility, something that comes naturally in youth but fades as the years pass; strength and determination, which we learn to cultivate more and more with age; and balance, a function of awareness, control and surrender that I believe is the foundation of wisdom.
This posture seems to express my age perfectly. Perched at the crossroads of youth and adulthood, flexibility and rigidity, making an effort to balance these forces.
Executing the posture in this way disengages both the gluteus maximus (butt) muscles and the abdominal muscles. These two huge muscle groups generally suffer from our western lifestyles, with so much sitting in chairs. It makes sense that they are weak, and the posture has altered to compensate for our weakness.
HOW TO CHANGE
To execute the posture properly, as has been done from Bose to Choudhury, the glutes and abs must engage to tilt the pelvis backward. This flattens the spine. The weight shifts back significantly, which means that the ankles must bend to push the knees forward. Notice the position of the knees of Bose, Mukerji and Choudhury. They are all significantly forward of the ankles.
Learning to practice Chair Posture this way can be challenging, especially when we've done it incorrectly for so long. Start very slowly. Bend the knees only slightly, and push them forward. Instead of focusing on your hips going back, bend your knees and push them forward. Whenever you feel your upper body leaning forward, straighten your legs a little bit, stand up, and again push your knees forward. Avoid letting the spine arch. Keep the back flat. You will notice that your abdominal muscles need to be quite tight.
Practicing this way will integrate the muscles of your pelvis and spine, strengthen your ankles and improve your balance significantly.
One thing I've always loved about yoga is how the same posture can have several different names, depending on the lineage and historical period. Or the same name can refer to any number of different positions. Learning all the names and positions is something that floats my boat. It's like yoga trivia mixed with history and tradition. I find it funny and interesting, and at the end of the day it tells me that the names are only as good as their ability to transmit the idea of a posture to another person. (Though there is the school of thought that, once you know the true name of something, you understand it completely.)
A posture that has been lost to the Ghosh Lineage for some time is Mandukasana, Frog Posture. If you are familiar with other traditions, there are several postures that bear the name "Frog." Even Tony Sanchez uses the name "Frog" for a different stretching posture in his intermediate series.
Bikram doesn't include Frog Posture in his "complete" list of postures, and so it has disappeared from a whole generation of his disciples. I was first introduced to it while editing Buddha Bose's book from the 1930s. It also appears in Gouri Shankar Mukherji's book from the 1960s. Also, there is a photo on the wall of Ghosh's Yoga College in Kolkata that shows Dibya Sundar Das in the posture.
I began practicing it out of curiosity. It is intense at first, in both the knees and the hips. But once I settle, it is quite stable and strong. It is wonderful to prepare the lower limbs for Lotus, something that I care more and more about every day.
Ida and I have begun taking photos for the first of our Advanced Practice Manuals, and we are including Frog Posture. Since both Bose and Mukherji's photos of the posture are from the back, to show the detail of the feet, it was almost surprising to see it from the front.
Above I am including a picture of the front of Frog Posture. I'm also including my picture of the back just for fun. You will notice how similar it is to Bose's and Mukherji's.
"All physical yoga techniques, including asana, are not designed to build or beautify the body or increase self-worth through proficiency in asana: their sole purpose is to prepare for meditation, and meditation is the technique to realize the Divine."
"Similarly, health is not the purpose of asana but is a by-product of being in harmony with cosmic forces, and that harmony supports and enables realization of the Divine."
"While today on the one hand we face the problem of meditators who do not adequately prepare the body for meditation, on the other hand we have Hatha yogis who get stuck in the meaningless drudgery of mere physical yoga. If the yogi does not go beyond the practice of posture and breath work, and does not graduate to and include formal meditation, then Hatha Yoga is not what it purports to be. It is then mere body-building, body-beautifying and gymnastics. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as the label clearly states that we are doing only that. The problem with today's physical yoga is that it pretends to be more. And it is so only if it merges into the mental and spiritual disciplines of yoga."
- From Yoga Meditation by Gregor Maehle.
When we come to our practice each day, it is easy to bring expectations and baggage. What has this practice meant to me in the past? What was I capable of yesterday or last year? What do I expect my performance to be today? This is especially true if we do the same or similar practice each day.
While it is generally desire that brings us to our practice - the desire for fitness, stress relief, spirituality or something else - once we arrive and begin practicing our postures, breathing or meditation all desire and expectation should be discarded. The practice becomes immediate, with complete mental presence in the moment. There is no future and no past, no expectations and no baggage. Only right now, only our body and breath and mind right now.
The first set of postures in Bikram's class is the Half Moon series, where we bend the upper body to both sides and then backward. These positions warm the body effectively because they stretch the same muscles that are engaged and strengthening. This generates a lot of heat.
When we bend to the right side, we are held up by the muscles on the left side of the body - in the hip, abdomen and torso. These are the same muscles that are being lengthened, so the body and mind must find a balance between engagement and release. Technically speaking, this is called eccentric contraction -when a muscle is engaged while getting longer. Contrast this with concentric contraction, where we engage a muscle and make it shorter, like a bicep curl or Cobra Pose. In concentric contraction, the muscles opposite the contracting muscle automatically relax and lengthen. In a bicep curl, the triceps relax. In Cobra Pose, the front chest, abdomen and hip flexors relax.
The fourth posture of the Half Moon series is Hands to Feet Pose. Unlike the side and back bends, Hands to Feet Pose is not an eccentric contraction. We contract the abdomen in order to stretch the back, so it is concentric contraction. This series of warm-up bends would be better served by an eccentric forward bend that engages the backside of the body while stretching it.
The goal is to feel and control
Each element of the body and mind.
Each muscle contracts or relaxes intentionally.
Each breath enters and exits on purpose.
Each thought... the thoughts are few and far between,
Focused on stillness and awareness.
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