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?