Friday, April 22, 2011

To Split or not to Split?

"No medicine cures what happiness cannot."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

These words by Gabriel Garcia Marquez have nothing to do with the topic of this post. I'm just on a Garcia-Marquez-quoting streak; unless one of you has had enough and tells me to stop, I will probably begin my posts for the next few days with a Garcia Marquez quote :-)

On with the topic of this post. In the last couple of weeks, after returning from Kino's workshop, the idea of splitting my practice and doing second only has come up on my radar screen more than a few times (right now, my daily practice consists of full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana).

As I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, Kino offered to give me Karandavasana during the Richmond workshop. She also suggested that once I start working on Karandavasana, I can stop doing primary everyday, and just work on second. At that time, I declined, citing knee-tweakiness issues (for more details, see this post). I basically told her that while I have no problem getting into padmasana and all its different variations in a seated or standing position, provided I pay careful attention to alignment (in practical terms, that means using the hand to close the knee joint first before moving it into padmasana), I don't have the particular flexibility that is needed to close my knee joint without using my hands. Speaking in asana terms, this means that I can't get into padmasana without using my hands to manipulate my feet into position.

Kino's suggestion is that I should work on getting into padmasana without using my hands from Sarvangasana (shoulderstand). The idea is that in this posture, one can try to get into padmasana without using the hands, but one also has the option of recruiting the hands to help out if needed--an option which is, of course, not available in either Sirsasana or Karandavasana itself, for obvious reasons. So getting into hands-free padmasana from shoulderstand serves in this way as a "training wheels" version of getting into karandavasana: Once I can get into padmasana without hands in Sarvangasana, I can then move on to actually working on Karandavasana. 

Frank has also helpfully suggested that my not being able to get into padmasana upside down without my hands probably has to do with lack of quadricep flexibility. I think this is an interesting suggestion, although on some level, this doesn't really add up: I can bring my heels (and on "good" days, even the entire soles of my feet) to the ground in Bhekasana.

But something really interesting happened during practice this morning. During the finishing sequence, I tried to bring my right foot into half-lotus from shoulderstand again. I managed to get the right knee joint to close without using my hand, but when I moved the right foot towards my left hip crease to go into half-lotus, the knee joint opened up again (why wouldn't it stay closed? Mysterious...). So at this point, I basically have a right leg that is in a half-assed version (excuse the language, but there's not other way to describe this) of half-lotus. I could either (1) recruit my hands now to close the knee joint, like I usually do, and then bring the left foot into padmasana, or (2) bring the left foot into padmasana with the right foot still in this half-assed half-lotus, and risk tweaking one or both knees. For some reason (I was feeling adventurous today), I chose (2). I brought the left foot into padmasana with the right-foot still in that half-assed half-lotus. For a couple of seconds, there was some discomfort in the right knee as it shifted back to accommodate the left foot, but that sensation passed, and I ended up in padmasana. Not a particularly deep padmasana (mainly because of that not-fully-closed right knee joint), but recognizable as such, nonetheless.

What all this means is that, at least in purely objective terms, I have fulfilled the criteria that Kino has set for me to start working on Karandavasana (and get off doing primary everyday). No excuses now, right?

Well, maybe... At the risk of sounding very lame, I'll share a couple of things here. You can decide whether these are excuses or valid reasons.

So here's the story: Around this time last year, I had also gotten to the same point in my practice. I had started working on Karandavasana with my teacher in Milwaukee, and had splitted off from primary at that point. Due to several reasons, I injured myself in a couple of places: I tweaked my right knee joint in karandavasana, probably because I couldn't close that knee joint fully while going into the pose. In addition, I also messed up my SI joint big time: This has nothing to do with karandavasana. It probably happened because I over-zealously tried to put my leg behind my head on days when my hips weren't open enough. My teacher also suggested that another contributing factor to these injuries could also be due to the fact that I was in the process of moving to Minnesota at the time. Moving and other life changes bring up strong emotions, which usually leads to bad judgments on the mat... I wish he had told me this before the injuries occurred, but oh well....

Anyway, to cut a long story short, because of these injuries, I had to scale my practice back to primary only: In fact, in the first few days of my injuries, it took me more than two hours just to get to Kurmasana, and jumping back was impossible, because it pulled on those muscles near the SI joint that had been inflamed, resulting in excruciating pain. (Note to reader: If you happen to be new to Ashtanga and are reading this blog, please do not be frightened away from Ashtanga; things like this happen only to certain reckless people... You can easily avoid these injuries if you practice with care.) After a few ups and downs, it took me about three months to get back to the point where I could do kapotasana again, and another two or three months to get back up to Pincha Mayurasana. Which is where I've been for the last couple of months. My SI joint has, for all intents and purposes, recovered, knock on wood (I still sometimes feel a little "off" sensation in the left SI area at the beginning of practice, but I have since found ways and means to work this out). My right knee, as I mentioned, has recovered to the point where I can get into padmasana and its variations with proper attention to alignment. But Karandavasana... ah, Karandavasana opens up a whole can of worms...

Of course, I suppose none of the above is in and of itself a good reason to not at least try working on Karandavasana, objectively speaking. But well, maybe I'm not always objective.

Ha! That was a lot of talking to myself. And I still don't know where I'm going with all this. I suppose the question in a nutshell is: To Split or Not to Split? Or: To Karandavasana or not to Karandavasana?

Well, I think I'll end this post with some other interesting news. I was looking at my stats earlier today, and I discovered that somebody has discovered my blog using the search keywords: "A man who does yoga is not a man." Funny, isn't it, considering that he stumbles upon the blog of a (not)man who does yoga as a result of this search? Just thought I'd share.            


  1. Hi Nobel - Please BE CAREFUL trying Padmasana from a shoulderstand. That is exactly how I hurt my right knee (and since you mention it, it happened on a very emotionally charged day. Stress = poor choices on the mat), and I'm still modifying all lotus AND half-lotus postures in Primary. Still... Primary + 2nd up to Pincha seems like a heroically long practice to do every day. How do you sustain your energy?

  2. Thanks for the advice on caution, Megan. Actually, this is probably what prompted me to write this post in the first place.

    I don't have a particular method of sustaining energy. I just take everything breath by breath. On many days, I'm totally spent by the time I finish Pincha, but I get there nonetheless. Well, sometimes, indulging in my little fantasy of being a kungfu master helps :-)

  3. Sorry, I must not have been clear. I wasn't suggesting that you have might issues with flexibility in the quadriceps; I was indicating that *I* have tight quadriceps, making Padmasana difficult. With the vast majority of people, I know the issue is the hips. Not so with me; my hips are quite open. I've heard it said that quadriceps might be the issue in 1-2% of people who have difficulty getting into Padmasana. So, it is rare, and I likely wouldn't suggest it unless I knew more about your practice. My heels don't go anywhere near the ground in Bhekasana, for example, so I'm not sure that we have the same problem.

    However, you do mention your half-lotus opening up. Could it be an issue with weak or disengaged hamstrings? I have to really squeeze my hamstrings in any lotus-related postures. I somehow figured this out after busting my right knee in the 2nd side of Marichyasana D last April. I think it's not just that my knee joint wasn't closed, but it naturally opened as I was getting into the pose because I wasn't engaging my hamstrings, so there was nothing keeping the angle in the knee joint, and it ended up twisting. I'm not sure if other people have to do this, and no one ever mentioned this to me; it's just something I figured out after my injury. So, I'm not sure how valid this info is, but it might be something to think about and/or play around with.

  4. Hi Nobel,

    maybe the time to take the leap to working on karandavasana and splitting your practice is the next time you get to work with a teacher that you trust?'s been super helpful for me to have my teacher help me work the upsidedown lotus since my right hip is tight as well (years of running).
    ...with help, I'm starting to find the feeling of working the lotus without any knee tweaks.

    ...maybe sign up for whatever your next practice with a teacher will be and then spend the in-between-time really working on depth in all the hip opening postures of primary?
    ...just some thoughts...looking forward to reading about your journey as it continues! :)

    Splitting is a whole new adventure!!

  5. Frank, thanks for the suggestion about weak or disengaged hamstrings. I have never thought about squeezing the hamstrings in connection with padmasana, but I'll try playing around with this the next time I practice, and see if it makes any difference with regard to closing the knee joint.

    Oh, btw, I know you are probably very busy, but you should think about starting a blog. You write well, and I think your writing will inspire many.

  6. Hello Christine, thanks for your suggestion about working on the upside down lotus the next time I am practicing with a teacher. I think this is good advice: At any rate, there is no reason to rush the upside down lotus.

  7. Hola...

    I basically have a right leg that is in a half-assed version

    HA HA HA, cannot stop laughing.

    I really enjoyed your post, and it had me cracking up and I also feel every word. Thanks for also cautioning new ashtangis who might be reading...

    I find this topic fascinating for two reasons 1) I did not know that getting into lotus without the hands while in shoulder stand could be a beginning to then finally make the break into taking kradanawhatever it is called and splitting

    2) I am nowhere near but I am curious about the psychological part of splitting the practice, I suppose one would go from something like 2 hours of practice to what? half an hour!? OK I am exagerating, but maybe 1.25? that must be an interesting choice, and a huge change.. then again, I wonder if it would give back a lot of extra energy much needed to take on the challenges of the ending of second series...

    3) I think I only said I was going to say two things but such is life, and my 3 is that I really like the quotes of Garcia Marquez

    I am going to start trying -VERY CAREFULLY and only on good mood days as Megan suggests- to get into lotus with no hands in shoulderstand...

  8. Hola Claudia,
    I'm happy that you like reading this post :-)

    Yes, according to Kino, getting into lotus without hands in shoulderstand is the "training wheels" version of karandavasana.

    Actually, if one can get the knee joint to close properly, it is actually safer to get into upside-down lotus without the hands than with the hands: I once tweaked my left knee by pulling too hard on the left foot to bring it into padmasana. Whereas without the hands, all you have to rely on is hip and hamstring flexibility, which is much safer in the long run.

    After splitting, practice time typically reduces from more than 2 hours (which is my practice time right now) to about an hour and 20 or 30 minutes. Which is cool, because psychologically, it is so much easier to get yourself on the mat if you know your practice is going to be shorter :-) And of course, you have more physical energy too.

    But the flip side is that because one does not have the whole of primary series to build up all that internal heat, the body is more cold, and certain postures (like kapotasana) may not come so easily. So you gain some, you lose some. At least, that's my experience.

    I'm glad you like the Garcia Marquez quotes. I wish I read Spanish, so I can read his works in the original :-)

  9. I'm curious about this, what happens if, due to injury, say, getting into inverted padmasana is just impossible for you. Does one a. Stay at Pinca for ever b. Skip Karandavasana altogether or c. employ a modification?

    Surely it has to be b. or c. I think Swenson had that training version where you got into padmasana, hoiked it up onto your forearms and then took it up that way. Ramaswami has one I like that's tough where you get into padmasana and then go into headstand curling your lotus up.

    So whhat about something along the lines of...
    Do your Pincha and come down
    Get into padmasana and take it up in headstand say then lift up to your forearms, lower and raise your lotus as well as the usual exit.

    I'm assuming you can undo your lotus without using your hands.

    No doubt you've considered something along those lines, my question really is something like that OK or is it a. say at pincha for ever.

    Perhaps it depends on what the important part of the posture is considered to be, forming the lotus or lowering and raising it.

  10. Hello Grimmly,
    I don't know whether it is more important to form the lotus in an inverted position or to lower and raise it. But I like your suggestion about getting into padmasana first, then sirsasana, then pincha mayurasana. But since I don't know whether forming the lotus while upside down is more important than raising and lowering, I am not sure whether your suggested plan is OK. I'll have to do more research on this. But thanks for bringing up this possibility.

    Well, if all else fails, I guess I can always stay at pincha for the rest of this lifetime, and wait to get karandavasana in my next lifetime/incarnation :-)

  11. Grimmly, if you can get into Baddha Padmasana for Supta Vajrasana, then you should be able get into Padmasana for Karandavasana. If that's case, you just need to learn how to do it, and your teacher can assist you into Padmasana while inverted and then assist you down into Karandavasana (if necessary, depending on what stage you're at in the pose) until you can do it on your own (and you'll probably be expected to try to get into Padmasana a couple of times before getting the assist, though the exact regimen depends on the teacher). If you can't get into Padmasana for Supta Vajrasana due to an injury, that's probably a sign that you shouldn't do it for Karandavasana, and that it's probably not wise for your teacher to whip you into lotus. I injured my knee when I just started working on Karandavasana, and teachers took different approaches. My main teacher had me just attempt to lower down (and then come up...) in a half-lotus-type position. One (who was not my main teacher but I dropped in on frequently) said there was no way to modify Karandavasana, so I just left it at that and stopped at Pincha with him (I do wonder what he would have said if I had been much more advanced at the time). And another (OK, it was Kino) had me do a different modification entirely. She had me lower the knees down to the armpits without doing any kind of lotus or other major hip rotation. It was basically Bakasana on the forearms, and she (playfully, you might say) called it "Bakandavasana". At the time, I was able to a loose/gentle lotus again, but I had not yet regained the ability to bind the feet with the hands for Baddha Padmasana. So, I was still not yet at the point where a teacher would have felt comfortable putting me into lotus. It was about 4 or 6 weeks after that when the assist into lotus first became feasible again (note that this was actually almost 6 months after my injury), and another 6 or 8 weeks after that when it became feasible to do every day. So, I guess it somewhat depends on where in the healing process the injury is. Every situation is different, not to mention differences among teachers, so there's not really one single answer. However, this can perhaps give you some idea of the different approaches out there.

  12. I forgot to mention my experience with splitting as far as time goes. As you add on more of 2nd Series, you do Primary faster, so the length of the practice does not end up increasing as much as you'd think it would. That's just kind of how it goes: no more extra-long holds (or dilly-dallying, as it were...). I could very consistently do all of Primary and 2nd to Pincha Mayurasana in 1:40 to 1:50. On a "bad knee" day, I might go 2:05 or 2:10, but that was rare; the vast majority of the time, I was in the former range. Now I'd probably do it in 1:35-1:40, since I no longer have to spend extra time on anything in Primary due to the knee injury, though it would depend on what kind of sequence I did for closing back-bending and how long I spent on closing. At the time, 2nd Series (only) to Karandavasana was probably 1:20-1:25, largely because Karandavasana was dreadful (as in, I dreaded it, though I wanted to put the time in). It would take me less time now, though, as there's no longer any drama associated with Karandavasana.

  13. Hello Frank,
    the many suggestions you gave to Grimmly about practicing around karandavasana in times of knee injury are very helpful. I'm learning a lot here. Thanks!

    I can definitely do all of primary and second up to pincha in around 1:50. It's just that, on most days, I tend to give in to the tendency to hold certain postures in primary longer to try to open the hips more.