Nauli Yoga

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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.

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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.

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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…

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13 thoughts on “Nauli Yoga

    • Thanks, Jerome. It was enlightening researching ‘nauli’, although perhaps a more important realization for me was the true origins of Yogananda’s exercises. I have a long history with Yogananda’s teachings stretching back to the early 1970’s, and it came as a surprise to me that the energization exercises were influenced by his reading of Jorgen Muller’s book. This strongly reinforces yet again my understanding of how postural yoga as we practice it today has evolved. These teachings are not unchanging ‘tablets delivered from the mountaintop’, but rather a natural evolution that constantly change and serves our needs of the present day.

      • John, I came across this article that you might enjoy. It’s on indigenous Physical Culture of Bengal. This covers exercise prior to the advent of Yogada and Yoga as as a physical cultural system: http://www.languageinindia.com/june2013/karphysicalbengal.pdf

        I have been reading through, at the Library of Congress, the first issues of Inner Culture, East West, and it’s very interesting how prominent a role that Yogada energization exercises are with Yogananda’s first years in the US. Was kriya yoga just much more secretive at that time, 1920 – 1930’s in what he put out for print, compared to what he taught to close students? It’s sort of beyond my core research, which revolves more around the formation of a hatha yoga system in Calcutta in the 1930’s, and the subsequent reach of that through the decades, but Yogananda plays such a major role with the people involved (Bishnu Ghosh, Buddha Bose) that I have to include him.

        Two more thoughts. First, with regard to JP Muller, and Yogananda. I will look into that book. Singleton’s Yoga Body associated it with Maxick, but it’s really this book by Bishnu Ghosh that follows Maxick.

        Second, this particular person, Bijoy Kumar Mallick, traveled widely with Bishnu and Buddha Bose in India in the 1930’s, but it was quite interesting to hear that he turned, in his later life, to combining devotional music and song with weightlifting (he owned a gym in Calcutta). I have the whole description from an interview in Calcutta I did earlier this year; just thought you might be interested to hear what became of “the master” Bijoy.

      • Hi Jerome,
        Thanks for the link and thoughts. Wonderful stuff! Question for you…Are you physically visiting the LOC in D.C.? I lived there during the late 1970’s and my favorite place in town was the Library. The architecture was imposing, seeing an actual copy of the Gutenberg Bible was thrilling, and this was the only library I have ever visited where I felt completely intimidated to find even a single book! I digress…

        Yogananda and his ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ were probably the single pivotal influence in my life. So I am quite familiar with his works and history. If you look at his public performances during the 1920s and 1930s, as compared with later years, you do see a change which Yogananda himself acknowledged. In the beginning, imagine a long haired Hindu with turban in the provincial setting of Boston circa 1925! In these times there was definitely a flavor of the showman complete with displays of feats of strength and mystery.

        It was not that Kriya Yoga the technique was ‘secret’ (it was and is still freely taught to those who want to learn), but rather that Kriya is a natural progression which is taught after the basic techniques are practiced, which includes the Energization Excercises you mention.

        The Muller book is really fascinating, and I can provide a link to the pdf if you wish.

        Regarding ‘Bijoy’, whom you surely know is Bishnu’s nephew, I would love to read more about him if you wish to share a link or two.
        It is all fascinating, and be sure to stay in touch as I appreciate your contributions and would like to see more of your work

  1. Hi John, first, a couple more links. I did a podcast interview about a historical book we are bringing to print:
    http://www.yogabody.com/episode-157-the-peoples-history-of-hot-yoga/
    And the, now fully funded, kickstarter we did for it:
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/242455566/84-yoga-asanas-by-buddha-bose/posts/1281176

    The reason why I brought up the notion of whether Kriya was or wasn’t a component of early Yogananda in the west, was because I have read in a couple of places that Mark Singleton mentions that as a change which Yogananda displayed, going from Yogoda to Kriya, or something to that effect, in an upcoming article. I don’t know exactly what he is referring to, so I’ll leave at that, but it had me pondering.

    Singleton wrote in his earlier book: “During his early years in America Yogananda taught a version of yogic “muscle control” heavily influenced by New Thought and European body-building. He had “discovered” this method of “muscle recharging through will power” in 1916 and tested it on students at his school in Ranchi. These students thereafter performed prodigious “feats of strength and endurance.” Yogananda’s early publications in America promote this auto-suggestive, quick-fix method of apparatus-free gymnastics, which is said to yield “the highest possible degree of physical, mental and spiritual well-being at the minimum expenditure of time and effort.” The “Yogada… system of body perfection… puts on or removes fat… teaches the spiritualizaton of the body.”

    Yes, I live across the Potomac from LoC, so I was able to go there each Tuesday for a couple of months (yes, a joy in those grand rooms), and went through all of the old archives (up to 1970) of Yogananda’s monthly newsletter, looking for needles here and there. What I gathered, similar to your thinking, was that he brought the practice to the level where he could engage, which started with the EE, or Yogoda, and moved from there.

    Yogoda though doesn’t seem quite that simple (explained as EE). When Bishnu, Buddha & Bijoy went on tour, doing their muscle control, with Yogananda around 1935, they called it Yogoda, which was muscle control. So Yogoda would seem to have been an overall catch-phrase for the techniques, enveloping even Kriya, but all that’s left of it now, at least in practice, is the EE. Does that sound right? Put another way, have you come across anything to suggest that Yogoda would include asanas and pranayama exercises?

    I have gathered more on Bijoy, but it is in Bengali at this point, so I have to await the translation. I have the Mueller book, My System, and his later My Breathing System one too. I hope to have a moment later this month to really compare it with the EE system. What did you think about the claim that Yogananda’s EE are based on JP’s System book?

    • Hi Jerome,

      Thanks for the links and I will surely listen to your podcast soon. How exciting to be close to the finish line on a wonderful research project. I look forward to reading your book when it arrives.

      I will attempt to give you my understanding of Yogananda and address your questions as best I can.

      When I read Singleton’s book, it was obvious to me that his familiarity with and understanding of Yogananda was quite limited. As a matter of fact, that is probably being too nice, so I’ll just say that I would not trust his conclusions in this area.

      If you want clarity on this, then I suggest a reading of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, which really does document not only the historical development of Yogananda’s mission in East & West, but also enables the reader to put the Energization Exercises in proper relationship to his overall teachings.

      Yogananda’s mission in the West was really quite focused and singular. He was chosen to bring the techniques of Kriya Yoga to America. This lineage of Kriya was really the essence of his life’s work, and everything else was superfluous.

      Now, ‘Yogoda’ is an interesting word which I believe Yogananda coined. Do you have a copy of his 1925 Boston publication with the title ‘Yogoda’. (Let me know, I have the pdf). This little book teaches the EE’s, along with 2 meditation techniques(Hong-Sau and OM) in later lessons. I believe that there were 3 or so iterations of these early forms of his ‘Lesson Series’ which took final form as the ‘Self Realization Fellowship Lessons’ in the 1940’s as I recall. All teach basically the same lessons, with Kriya being the culmination.

      So it would be incorrect to say that Kriya was not part of his teachings in the early years. It was in fact the essence of the teachings, and was freely taught to those interested in learning.

      On another point, I believe it was in 1917 before he came West that he founded the Yogoda Satsanga Society in India. It is interesting to trace the lineages of the various ‘Kriya Gurus’ to see how various sects change the teachings here and there, but always the essence of Kriya practice is the center of all of the various groups.

      Finally, when I studied Mueller’s ‘My System’, there was little doubt in my mind that this influenced the development of the EE exercises. Some of the drawings were pretty convincing and one could see Yogananda really being influenced by the book. I also trust the source of the claim, who was Swami Satyananda, one of his closest friends from childhood.

      I see Yogananda as a wonderful creative spirit, who was open to new ideas, teaching spontaneously in the call of the moment, who was tremendously charismatic, while at the same time completely dedicated and loyal to the spread of Kriya in the West.

  2. Hi John, I happen to be in the British Library right now, and was searching for someting I recalled and came upon this thread. Did you know that the British were tracking Yogananda in America with spies coming to his speeches and such? I came across quite a stash of the back and forth letters, and many articles cut out and saved. It was quite interesting, as you can imagine. They never found anything much against him, he was never really overtly political. But, it did become obvious to me that the reason why Yogananda did not go back to India until 1934, was because be was not sure that he would be able to get back into the US (probably not).

    Have you read the writings done by Sailendra Bejoy Dasgupta, that were written over the last decade by a British disciple of his?

  3. Hi Jerome,
    Wow that is interesting stuff! If you have any links to any of that stuff(I assume there are none but it would be great if there were) please send them along. I have seen nothing of Bejoy in recent times, so I will look into his British disciple. Do you recall his name? Thanks for staying in touch with your whereabouts and great contributions!

  4. Hi John, I’ve just returned from a long voyage that once again brought me to India. I was able to journey to the Yogiraj Lahiri Mahasaya’s house step in Varanasi, again to Ranchi, on a Sunday when the meditations were happening, and also to Puri, and SriYukteshwar’s Ashram and meditation temple. The latter was very powerful. iirc, it’s referred to as the Mother Temple of Kriya Yoga, very apt. And Calcutta, many places there, including the levitating saint’s place, complete with his bed, 100 year old skinned sandals and tiger head (I guess from the seat he used).

    Questions; Do you know where I might find something written by Yogananda about his journey to Tokyo? I stopped by there and Bangkok on the way home, as those were the first two outposts of Calcutta Yoga. He apparently was in a port city, and didn’t like the culture, and left after a week back for Calcutta. Shame, he was only a few hours away from Kyoto, and probably would have liked it there.

    The British disciple does not give out his name. He just goes by Nala, his library is here: http://yoganiketan.net/library I was unable to locate him while in London.

    Sorry, there are no links on the correspondence about Yogananda from the british and american spies. I did take photos of the stuff, so will be able to use it for writing about the episode. That’s what I am embarking on now.

  5. Hi Jerome,
    Good to hear from you and wonderful to know about your pilgrimage to India. Did you travel with a group or did you go solo? I have a few friends who lead tours with a similar itinerary. Please contact me at jfdeters@yahoo.com and I will share some detailed thoughts about your questions.
    Years ago I was in contact with Nala, and his online library is a treasure for people interested in the Kriya lineage as it developed in India.

  6. John, you should take a look at this online article here, about Bijoy’s son, Bablu Mallick:

    Unfortunately, he just died a little over a year ago, so I won’t be able to visit him in Calcutta when I am there in India for June and July this summer. I was hoping to come across something else to include with Bijoy’s story, so this is a nice intersection. Just would have been rich to speak with him. It’s funny too how people in Calcutta refer to their older friends as their uncle’s and their uncle’s as their grandfathers.

    http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100709/jsp/calcutta/story_12550089.jsp

    “Mallick, whose grandfather was the famous Yoga exponent Bishnucharan Ghosh, was an active fitness practitioner at his neighbourhood akhra. Art, too, was in his blood: right from his childhood, he was fascinated by Kathakali practitioners in the family and their mudras. “I used to practise the effects of these mudras as shadows on the wall and played with these forms from an young age,” says Mallick, after a short, strenuous but awe-inspiring performance for Metro at his Gariahat Road apartment….
    “My stint at Moulin Rouge lasted for a decade, and it was like a dream,” recalls Mallick.”

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