Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Kapotasana and The Dark Side

It appears that kapotasana has recently resurfaced in the blogosphere as a topic of discussion. I know at least a couple of recent posts devoted to this posture. The latest installment of David Garrigues' Asana Kitchen features a video about kapotasana. Helen's latest post on Ashtanga Yoga Journal features a very powerful and honest discussion of the trials and tribulations of working with this very powerful post.

So I've also decided to jump on the kapotasana bandwagon. Specifically, I would like to talk about the "dark side" of the kapotasana journey. From talking to ashtangis and/or reading about their experiences, it seems to me that quite a few ashtangis have a "kapotasana horror story" or two to tell. My teacher told me that when he was in Mysore, he spent eight months being "stuck" at Kapo (yes, he spent eight months in Mysore!). At one point, his back got so sore (bad yoga joke: Why is the word "sore" in "Mysore"? Okay, sorry, I just couldn't resist the cheap shot here) that he couldn't bring himself to go to practice for an entire week.

I have my own kapotasana horror story to tell too. I started doing kapo last November (hmm... so it's being exactly a year since I started doing the pose! Interesting...). I still remember the first time I grabbed my heels on my own in kapo. It was in March, I was at the shala, and it looked like it was going to be just another typical practice. I had landed my hands about a foot from my feet, and was slowly walking them in towards the feet. I thought I was just going to grab my toes, or my mid-sole, as I had been doing for the past couple of months. Sometimes, my teacher would come around and assist me, and maneuver me into grabbing my heels. Anyway, on this particular practice, my teacher's assistant came around as I was walking my hands, and asked me if I needed any help (I probably had a really constipated look on my face). I replied, "I got it", and to my surprise, somehow managed to walk my hands the extra 2 inches needed to grab my heels.

Nothing magical happened at that moment. Besides gratifying my ego (you can probably tell by now that kapo brings out all the ego issues in me), there were no fireworks, or anything like that. Lord Shiva did not descend from the heavens and grant me a boon. I just kinda went on with the rest of my practice.

But there was a price to pay. For 2 weeks after that, I would wake up every morning with a back that was so tight and sore that I could barely crawl out of bed. It got so bad at one point that it actually woke me up a few times during the night, and I seriously considered giving up kapo altogether. It didn't help that my teacher was in Mysore at that time, so I couldn't seek his advice on this. And then I decided that doing some forward bends and hip openers outside of my practice might help to release whatever muscles in my spine that are being tightened up. Every morning, I would crawl out of bed, and do this particular sequence that I learnt a few years ago from Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane: 1. Uttanasana for 5 to 10 breaths, 2. Malasana for 5 to 10 breaths, 3. Mandukasana for 5 to 10 breaths. (Mandukasana is basically a kneeling position where you sit on your heels, but with your legs spread about 90 degrees apart.) Repeat steps 1. to 3. for about 5 times. Interesting, after I did this, my back started to release, and after a week or so, the feeling of tightness in my back went away. I thought I'd describe it here, in case anybody out there might benefit from it as well. So, you see, I also do things that are not in the "system" :-)

Kapotasana is a formidable posture, and I suspect it will remain so for me for a long time to come. Even today (including during my practice this morning), kapotasana still stirs up all kinds of powerful emotions every time I do it. I feel, in this order: anxiety, fear, pride, surrender, empowerment, calm, and finally, relief. I have tried to do a very detailed phenomenological analysis of my emotions as I approach kapotasana during my practice, and this is more or less how these emotions arise:

1. Anxiety (“How deeply can I go in kapo today? Will I be able to grab my heels today?”): I often start feeling this emotion before I even get to kapo, while I’m still doing laghu.
2. Fear (“Will I break something in my body as I go into kapo today?”): As irrational as this sounds, this thought arises every single time I do kapo. A big part of this emotion is probably triggered by something, well, emotional rather than by something concrete and physical.
3. Pride (“I need to get my heels, or at least get as close to them as possible”): This emotion usually arises when I start hanging back and trying to open my chest into kapo.
4. Surrender (“Look, there’s really no point worrying about how deep you are going to go in the posture. Just do the posture”): This emotion arises when I get my hands to the ground and start walking them to the heels. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can just grab my heels directly from the air.  
5. Empowerment (“I feel so open that I can absorb everything the universe has to throw at me.”): This is what I feel when I’m actually in the posture.
6. On “good kapo days”, my breath will actually be deep and long while in kapo, and I get this feeling of powerful calm and tranquility.
7. Relief (“Whew! I’m so glad I’m done with kapo! Next posture!”): It’s kind of funny, if you think about it. I feel this big sense of relief every single time I finish kapo, even though I have been doing this posture for close to a year now. If you compare the second series to a journey, kapo is this big mountain that stands in the middle of a landscape of (relatively) gently undulating hills. In fact, in my opinion, no other posture in second that I have done (the furthest I’ve gone is Mayurasana) even comes close to the intensity of kapotasana. Not even karandavasana, even though I’m supposed to be more proficient in kapo than karandavasana (I still can’t go down and come back up by myself in karandavasana). I think I probably will continue to feel like this for a long time to come.
But I think there is a silver lining in this kapotasana cloud, so to speak. In his book on the second series, Gregor Maehle notes that many second series postures (including kapotasana) are named after animals or asuras (demons). Seen in this light, the purpose of postures like kapotasana is to help us to face "our own dark side, our shadow that is always there." Yes, Maehle actually uses the term "dark side"! See, I've always believed that many ashtangis are closet Star Wars geeks :-) Maehle continues,
"Each human being has in each moment the choice to follow his or her demonic or divine potential. Only if we can acknowledge our own asuric potential can we overcome it. If we deny our dark side, it will only get stronger and stronger and surface in the most unlikely and most unwanted situations."
Who knew that doing kapotasana is part of Jedi training? Pretty cool, eh?  



  1. Oooh it's a big deal this pose!!! I've got friends who can grab both heels from the air every single day and they still go into it with a certain amount of reluctance.

    It's way different for me when I'm doing it right before Raja Kapo, as an unconventional, JC recommended addition to my 3rd. There's so much back bending before it - in that routine - that it's no big deal.

    I really like this addition. It's changed my relationship with this asana in a big way!

  2. Nice post. I'm a Star Wars geek too, and I'm trying very hard to make Kapo divine and not demonic. I can get way deep into the dark side about Kapotasana!

  3. You and your Starwars, had me cracking up. Thank you for that tip from Eddie Modestini, I suppose when I get to the pose (which is about 3 poses away for me, oh my Gosh! just freeked out there for a moment), I like that it really worked for you and is not like you would find that kind of suggestion in any book... I did not like the part where Shiva did not come down and give you a boon, I thought that was the whole point, oh well!!

  4. Ha, great post but you guys who have been doing it for longer are meant to tell me it gets easier, lol. Who knew a shape could teach us so much.

  5. ha ha ha ha thanks Linda, I feel so much better now. After third does such a place even exist!!!!!!

  6. Helen, it does kind of get easier, in the sense that you learn to expect the many emotions that come up instead of freaking out. To use a very cliched phrase: One learns to be somewhat comfortable with being (very) uncomfortable. Do these emotions eventually go away if you do kapo long enough? I don't know; I've only been doing the pose for a year. According to Kino, one needs to repeat an action/pose for at least a thousand times before one can attain some level of mastery. One year is not even close to a thousand times.

    But whoever said becoming a Jedi was easy? :-)

    Boodiba (Linda?): I sure hope it gets easier after 3rd. The question is: Will I get to 3rd?

    Claudia, yes, Eddie and Nicki are great teachers. Unfortunately, their studios are on Maui and Sebastopol, CA, neither of which are places I can afford to go to very often. They are the biggest ego-busters in the world, though: I remember Eddie once saying that he wouldn't personally allow a student to try kapotasana unless the student is able to do 10 laghus in a row.

    But maybe Shiva will come down and give you a boon when you do kapo. Remember Guruji's words: Do you practice, and all is coming...

  7. Thanks Nobel, You made me realise it has got easier for me too. I was being dramatic, it has been intense this week as I have been going deeper, it seems I have to deeper to get in by myself as opposed to being assisted. I was first given the pose in December, last year, so not long after you, although you have a deeper kapo I suspect. And yes, you are right it is in the challenge that there is growth and I am grateful for it.

    Kino mentioned at a workshop that I went to that guruji once kept them in kapo for a very long time, in led intermediate. I can not remember the full story but I guess he wanted them to learn to just be there.

    It is interesting what you say about kapo being harder than karandavasana because I was having this discussion with a friend on facebook. He said karandavasana was the hardest pose and I felt that was kapo due to the emotional intensity of it. Karandavasana is physically harder I guess, I have only been give it two weeks ago so I don't really know. I am thinking it is a good ego buster.

  8. Dear Nobel
    Great observations. I don't have to worry about Kapo since it was taken from me. haha. Hmm, now I know where the word manduka came from.