Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kapotasana, practice, and this thing called life

"He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

In a recent post, Megan shares with us her progress in her practice of kapotasana, complete with a video of her kapotasana practice (great work, Megan!). Megan is a person of great courage. I have yet to muster the courage to film myself doing kapo (if you would like to see a still picture of me in kapo, take a look at this post): I take so many breaths to get into it, I'll probably cringe seeing that video, if it ever gets made.

So you won't get to see any kapo videos in this post. (If this is what drew you to read this post, well, you can stop reading now :-)) Instead, I'm going to say a few things about what I think doing kapotasana can teach us about our practice and life in general. For various reasons, kapotasana evokes very strong emotional and psychological reactions in many practitioners. One reason is purely physical: In our daily lives, most of us are never in situations where we have to bend over backward into such a powerfully backbended position. Forward bends, on the other hand, do not faze us that much, because many of us already spend a lot of our day in some variation of a forward bend or other (sitting hunched over in front of a computer, driving, etc.) In a sense, then, a forward bend simply asks us to carry to a slightly further extent what we already do in our daily lives.

But backbends are unfamiliar territory for most of us: Most of us never have to backbend in the course of our daily lives. In fact, several years ago, at a yoga conference in Miami, a senior teacher claimed that you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in a month the average American gets his or her body into anything that even slightly resembles a backbend. This claim might be an exaggeration, but I think the general point is clear: Backbends are very unfamiliar territory for most of our almost-perpetually-hunched-over bodies (heck, I'm actually hunched over my laptop right now, writing this post about backbends... how's that for irony?). And getting our bodies into a powerful backbend like kapotasana really brings even Ashtangis, who already backbend everyday, out of their comfort zones. (Note to reader: I really am not trying to spread kapo-phobia or kapo-anxiety by talking about kapotasana like that. If you are new to Ashtanga, or if you are at the point in second series where you are very close to being given kapo, please remember that everything I say in this post applies to people in general. Which means it may or may not apply to you. Take heart. It's just that it has been historically proven that kapotasana has evoked, and continues to evoke lots of strong reactions in lots of people, including yours truly).

I have written at length elsewhere about my own reactions to kapotasana (see this post), so I won't repeat them here. One thing is clear: Unless you are a "natural backbender"--unless, in Megan's words, you happen to be "one of those pixies with a rubber band for a spine"--kapotasana will pose a formidable physical challenge for a long time to come. But having practiced kapotasana for about a year and a half now (I was first given the pose in November 2009), I think that there is one valuable thing that my kapotasana journey has taught me: Physical suffering does not have to lead to mental or emotional suffering. I suspect that for quite a few Ashtangis, kapotasana represents this giant ominous cloud of suffering that becomes bigger and bigger (and bigger...) as they get closer to the pose in their practice. This often leads them to enact some kind of drama to cope with the stress caused by the prospect of such suffering (see this post for my observations on this phenomenon). The trouble is, the more one plays into this drama, the bigger and more ominous the cloud of suffering appears to the mind of the practitioner. Which causes kapotasana to be much bigger and badder than it really is. Which leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering. Whereas if one just goes through the motions and does the actions that are necessary in order to execute kapotasana, and tries one's best to breathe as deeply and evenly as possible throughout, one would find that the suffering is a lot more manageable. There will always be intense physical sensations (and along with that, certain intense emotional and mental associations as well), but the breath allows one to be with the sensations rather than be in a position of just trying to "get this over with as quickly as possible". And being with something allows one to go through it with more fortitude and, hopefully, grace.          

And perhaps in this way, kapotasana teaches us something about navigating the sufferings of daily life as well. Whether we like it or not, life throws unpleasant things at us, things that we can't just wish away or depend on others to take care of. We can choose to play into the drama that these things tend to evoke in our minds, and make the suffering bigger and badder than it needs to be; or we can do what needs to be done, breath, and go through what needs to be gone through with fortitude and hopefully, grace. 


  1. Remember this when you add Karandavasana. (HAHA!)

  2. Well put! Do the actions necessary to execute the pose. And breathe. And yes - it carries over! What a gift!

    'one of those pixies with a rubber band for a spine'... jeez, you would think we didn't work as hard as the rest of you.. ;)

  3. Thanks, Susan. Yes, I forgot that you are actually a natural backbender (in case you are wondering, I really mean this as a compliment). Maybe you can write a post about your backbending experience, so that we (ahem!) mere mortals can learn a thing or two? :-) Just a suggestion.