Thursday, November 11, 2010

Superstition in the asana practice

In her latest post, Evelyn from "Kapo is my bitch" brings up a very interesting phenomenon in her practice. Describing her kapotasana experience during the day's practice, she writes,

"I did Kapo twice. After one, where I zoomed into it but only got my toes, I was struck with the old superstition, "what if I keep allowing myself to only go this far and I never EVER get my heels again?" and then reminded myself that a heel-grab Kapo would also help me later on in back bending. So I did 2 and got the heels on the 2nd one. whew. Not lost."

I experience this "superstition" too, and although I cannot speak for other practitioners, I suspect there are probably at least a few other ashtangis out there who experience the same phenomenon. Maybe we refer to it by different names ("OCD", "Type A personality", "perfectionism", etc.), and it doesn't just occur with kapotasana. Different people probably experience it with different postures. For instance, I used to be really OCD (or "superstitious") about getting my hands flat on the mat and my forehead to my shin by the second or third surya A. I had this idea that if I don't accomplish this, I somehow wasn't doing enough work in my practice, and I might "lose" the ability to do a deep forward bend. 

I use quotation marks when I say "superstition", because I don't really think it is a superstition, at least not for me. Nor do I think it is just a symptom of being mildly (?) OCD. I believe this "superstition" (or OCD, or whatever you want to call it) is actually my mind/body's way of telling me that if I don't push the edge in today's practice, I will not be able to experience my body's full expression of this posture today. For instance, I do not consider myself a "natural backbender" (I understand this is a relative term). Very often, when I get to kapotasana in my practice, I don't even feel open enough to do the posture, let alone grab my heels. This is when the superstition kicks in: I hear a voice in me saying, "If you don't try your best to grab your heels today, how can you expect to open your body up tomorrow, when your body will be even less open because you didn't try today?" So I make myself hang in the posture for a while before landing my hands on the mat. And I always end up grabbing my heels anyway. Actually, all this just happened during this morning's practice.    

So I actually think the "superstition" (or OCD) actually serves a positive function in the practice: It spurs me to do something, to get to a place that I would probably not get to otherwise. This might be what David Garrigues is referring to when he describes yoga practice as "walking on the razor's edge" in a recent Asana Kitchen video. Asana practice involves a moment-by-moment assessment of where the mind/body is with respect to this "razor's edge". If one is not mindful, one can veer too far to one side or the other of this edge, and either succumb to the feeling that "I can never get this posture" and simply give up, or try so hard that one fails to pay attention to the body's cues and injures oneself. To stay on the edge is to try hard enough to progress in the practice, but not so hard that one injures oneself.

I like to think that this "superstition" often gives me the ballast needed to stay on the razor's edge, and not resign myself to my mind/body's perceived limits. But I will also admit that this "superstition" has also gotten me into trouble before. A few of my worse injuries probably arose as a result of this "superstition": For example, driving myself to try to crank my leg behind my head on a day when I should have listened to my body's feeling that my hips are not open enough, and hurting my SI joint as a result.

So it seems that this superstition is a double-edged sword. It can add a little extra "fire" to the practice, but it can also burn you quite badly if you are not careful.

If you have any "superstitious" (or supernatural) experiences, I would love to hear about them.



  1. well... I'll be the first to comment! (thanks for elaborating on this topic)

    I really like the idea of pushing your edge because *finding* the edge is such a hard part of the equation. I've caught myself being lazy before and knew I wasn't giving it everything I could, but I usually resolve that in the next practice. Recently I tried tick tocks again with a shoulder that wasn't ready. I stopped doing them because of my shoulder, but then I couldn't figure out if I had waited long enough for the shoulder to heal (couldn't tell if it was still prone to injury or if it was just sore) or if I was letting the FEAR of injury get in the way. Instead of waiting for the shoulder to feel a little stronger, I tried them-- And got hurt- even though the action itself was controlled and, under normal circumstances, probably wouldn't have re-injured me. My shoulder just wasn't ready. But I really couldn't tell! So.. it's a tough issue!

    For Kapo, I won't allow too many days of toe grabs, knowing that I CAN get my heels if I just hang longer! (the hang really helps, right?)

  2. Sorry to hear about your shoulder. I had a rotator cuff injury once, and it hurt like hell just to do downward dog.

    I sometimes wonder if pushing the edge is safer in some postures than in others. For example, in kapo, the hang (yes, it really does help..) acts as a sort of diagnostic tool, allowing you to get a pretty good sense of how open your chest and front body is before you commit yourself to the ground. But there is no such diagnostic tool in leg-behind-head postures. Yes, you do have some sense of how open your hips are on a given day, but there is really no way to know for sure until you actually try to get into the posture. And once you try, you have committed yourself, and when you feel something pull, pop, or (yikes!) tear, it is too late.

    Just writing about these things gives me the shudders...

  3. ha! diagnostic tool... perfect description. I had to do a diagnostic for today's Kapo!