The Tradition of 84 Asanas
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
From Ego to Faith
We all begin with ego. We don't necessarily think that we are better than everyone else, but we are generally rooted in our own concept of reality. And, more significantly, we don't realize that we are rooted in and limited by our own conceptions. This is the first wall that begins to show cracks with earnest practice, study and humility. We realize that there are other versions of reality out there that are just as valid as ours. (Or just as invalid.) And we begin to see that "reality" is usually something we construct with our own minds; a fairy tale we tell ourselves to bring the comfort of structure.
Once our ego is sufficiently weakened, we generally need guidance from someone who has experience in these realms. We have spent most of our lives with the unchallenged view that our reality was the only one, so we have little experience with any other worldview. This is where a teacher comes in handy. We seek (and hopefully find) someone who has walked the path before and who can effectively communicate how to traverse the new mental terrain.
Faith, as I am growing to see it, is not a belief but rather an acceptance of our lack of control. In this way, faith is the opposite of the ego. We build our egos and our ego-centric worldview specifically to protect us from our powerlessness. When our ego crumbles and we gain familiarity with the limitations and capabilities of our consciousness, we exist in a mystical state that is almost incomprehensible to the logical human brain. This state, where we are unanchored by the stable but rigid constructs of our own egos, is faith. Faith takes courage, especially at first. It is uncomfortable to our logical minds, this surrendering and seeking to comprehend our true powerlessness and role in the world.
I have been asked several times in the past few months why I don't say Namaste at the end of class and also why I don't use Sanskrit terms or names for postures. The answer is, mostly, clarity.
I don't speak Sanskrit, and none of the students that I've come across speak Sanskrit either. Most of us in the US speak English, so it feels natural to me to speak English when I teach. There is somewhat of a tradition in yoga to use the Sanskrit names of postures. At its best, it offers a sacredness and gravity to the practice, at its worst it creates elitism and confusion.
I have never been one for following traditions out of deference. I prefer to test each lesson and practice in the context of modern civilization and my own life. I find that yoga is easier to understand, practice and teach when I use common language. It allows me to relate to the practices instead of revere them, and as a teacher I encourage my students to do the same. We practice yoga because it benefits us, not because it is traditional.
Namaste (literally translated as "I bow to you") is a respectful greeting that can be interpreted as anything from "salutations" to recognition of the divine in another person. It is a Sanskrit word, and my dislike for its confusion is the same as above. But the cultural and spiritual implications of the word also trouble me and keep me from using it.
I am not Hindu. The meaning that we give namaste in yoga is a distinctly Hindu one, something along the lines of "I bow to the divine in you" or "I see the same divine light in you as I see in myself." While I think these are beautiful and powerful phrases, they assume a certain level of Hinduism that I don't take lightly.
The path of yoga gradually reveals to us the underlying nature of reality, in which the "Divine" is universally present in all people, beings and things. But even that explanation takes on Hindu terminology and a Hindu relationship to God. Personally, I have not progressed far enough on the path of yoga to make this statement unequivocally and with integrity. I can understand it in theory, but that is a far cry from the first-hand experience and understanding I prefer before adopting language and teaching into my life.
The idea behind Namaste is a beautiful one, at least the way it has been generally appropriated in western yoga. A recognition of effort and goodness in others. I prefer to say these things clearly, concisely and in my own language. I gladly offer respect, gratitude, honor and joy when I feel them. I simply use those words.
"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.
I just finished reading Gregor Maehle's new book Samadhi. In it he describes the eighth and final limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
It is becoming clearer to me that asana (postures) are a small part of yoga. They are certainly not its goal. They serve the vital purposes of bringing health to the body, allowing us to sit for long periods of time in stillness, and strengthening the body to tolerate the intense energetic effects of Kundalini meditation and samadhi.
Yoga directs us toward understanding the nature of the mind and of consciousness. The 8 samadhis allow us to experience them firsthand instead of simply thinking about them theoretically.
As a yoga teacher in the USA, my teachings are focused around asana. I think this needs to change.
Living in India for a month was a life-changing experience. The act of living in another place, immersed in another culture for more than a few days cannot fail to change a person. It would have changed me equally to live in Ethiopia, China, Russia, Chile or even England.
The most profound of changes occurred because I am a yogi, and I had many preconceived notions of India, the birthplace of yoga. I had my own ideas of what India might be like, how the people might act and live, what it must be like to spend time there. Of course, I was wrong about all of it.
I thought that India would be a sacred, holy place, full of humble, spiritual people so much closer to God than me or any of us materialistic westerners. What I found was a place similar to my home for the simple reason that it is populated with humans. We are linked by our humanity: our need to survive, care for our family, and find purpose in this life. These human needs link the richest king and the poorest beggar, the sublime holy man and the criminal.
I thought that everyone in India would practice yoga or at least know what yoga is. This also turned out to be false. Their lack of physical health rivals that of the US. Poor posture, poor breathing, poor nutrition, poor hygiene. I thought they would all be spiritual and holy, unburdened by earthly want. Instead I saw eyes riveted to television 24 hours a day, and daily religious offerings punctuated by the smashing of a chair over another man's head.
Three times I felt afraid for my own safety and that of my loved ones; I was a foreigner whose white skin was offensive and provoking, whose wife's bare shoulders were an outrage.
I thought that poverty was the worst of all fates. How can one live without work and money? How can one be proud without possessions? But I met a man - he served our meals for the entire month we were there - who slept outdoors on a concrete slab, legs draped over his childhood friend who slept close by. This man had the widest, brightest and most transcendent smile I have ever seen. To see him smile and hear him chuckle is to understand the simplicity of joy.
After all, I see the humanity in all of us more clearly. We are so closely related. And I see that the divinity I seek is within myself. I thought it might be in a temple, on a mountain, in a teacher, or in a distant holy land. But it is not in any of those places. It is within.
I am humbled. I am empowered. I am connected.
Today we use the time in-between classes to wander through Calcutta. We start at a coffee shop in the book district. The coffee is not very good, but it is nice to sit, drink and converse. Our wanderings take us around old Calcutta, and we end up at the Vivekananda museum, the huge property where he grew up that was eventually separated and then restored to its former and present form.
I like Vivekananda, but mostly the visit reminds me of my desire to learn more about Ramakrishna, the Hindu priest who knew God through many Hindu deities as well as Islam and Christianity. “I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps”, he said.
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.
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.
Yoga is not Buddhism, but there is a belief in Buddhism that the journey is far more important than any personality or cult of leadership that may form. This is valid when applied to the practice of yoga, especially amidst all the "guru" scandals that have arisen in the past 100 years, not the least of which is Bikram. The practice and the journey are more important than any single teacher or personality.
"Throughout his life [Gotama, the Buddha] fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly deflected attention of his disciples from himself. It was not his life and personality but his teaching that was important... If people started to revere Gotama the man, they would distract themselves from their task, and the cult could become a prop, causing an unworthy dependence that could only impede spiritual progress."
- From Buddha by Karen Armstrong
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