Here is one of my favorite photos. You are looking at the nephew of Bishnu Ghosh practicing abdominal isolation. This photo and the one below are taken from Ghosh and Sengupta’s 1934 Book entitled “Muscle Control”. The lower photo describes Ghosh’s instructions for the practice.
Here is another interesting photo of a student of European strongman ‘Maxick’, taken from a book published circa 1910, which details the “Maxalding” system. This is an exercise system of muscle control using a form of isometrics. Like the ‘dynamic tension‘ system of Charles Atlas and those of others, Maxalding did not use weights. Where the other systems concentrated on muscle development, Maxalding taught muscle control, concentration and will power. Some exercises of Maxalding, involving isolating the muscles of the abdominal region, are similar to the yoga exercise called nauli.
Maxick, whose real name was Max Sick, was born in Austria in 1882 and moved to Britain in 1909, where he met Monte Saldo, who was apprenticed to the great Eugen Sandow in 1897. The pair collaborated on several books in the genre.
What is curiously apparent is the identical practice of abdominal isolation, which raises the question from whom did Bishnu Ghosh learn the technique? We know that the influence of Eugen Sandow was quite strong in the early 1900’s in India, and that there was a regular flow of physical culture books and ideas from Europe into India during that time.
Nauli is an exercise of the classical Hatha Yoga but is not taught often in yoga schools. Considered a difficult exercise, nauli can be learned only with perseverance and patience. It is described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as follows:
HYP 2:33,34 – “Lean forward, protrude the abdomen and rotate (the muscles) from right to left with speed. This is called nauli by the siddhas. Nauli is foremost among the Hatha Yoga practices. It kindles the digestive fire, removing indigestion, sluggish digestion, and all disorders of the doshas, and brings about happiness.”
Is nauli as described in the HYP the same or similar to the abdominal isolation techniques of Maxick and Ghosh?
Before Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, we had Krishnamacharya. Before Krishnamacharya’s early 1930’s teaching at the Palace, we had Bishnu Ghosh. But before baby Bishnu we had his older brother Paramahansa Yogananda, who was a central figure in the incredibly formative period in the spread of Yoga to the West. In fact, after Vivekananda’s visit to America in 1893, and literally a generation before the Hatha teachings of Krishnamacharya, Yogananda was not only spreading his primary teaching of Kriya yoga meditation to the West, but as part of the physical culture renaissance going on around the world, in 1916 he developed his own system of bodily exercise he termed “Energization Exercises”. Included in his set of 38 exercises is a modified easy version of the abdominal technique.
During the year before Yogananda published his exercises, his childhood friend and brother disciple Swami Satyananda stated that “ a certain book fell into the hands of Yogananda.” The book was titled “My System” by the Danish gymnastics educator Jorgen Muller. Satyananda goes on to say that “Yogananda became very excited reading the book which discussed how to build muscles through the concentration of the mind.”
So what can we reasonably conclude from this? While it is difficult to say with certainty the exact origins of these techniques, I would suggest that there is a natural ebb and flow to the evolution of humanity, and we organically take bits and pieces of wisdom and practice from many sources, adding our own multicolor threads to life’s weaving… into the divine tapestry that we behold today.
Who can say, but really I just like the photos…