Thursday, June 2, 2011

Kapotasana and Karandavasana: Effortful surrender and Surrender-ful effort

Did full primary and second up to Karandavasana this morning. I made two attempts at Karandavasana. This is how they went:

First attempt: Got into Pincha Mayurasana. I then closed the right knee joint, but lost my balance while trying to move the right foot into the left hip crease, and had to come back down.

Second attempt: Did better on this one. I got into Pincha Mayurasana, closed the right knee joint, and successfully brought the right foot into the left hip crease and then the left foot on top of the right thigh, getting into padmasana. Rather than try to land the knees on the upper arms, I decided to follow Helen's suggestion, and work on holding padmasana in pincha for a number of breaths. I decided to try holding this for 10 breaths. I did that; just as I exhaled my tenth breath, I lost my balance, and had to come down. Which leads me to wonder about the power of suggestion: If we tell our minds/bodies that we can hold something for 10 breaths, it will hold that thing for 10 breaths. Whereas if we had settled for less, the mind/body probably will end up settling for less. I think I will continue to work on holding padmasana in pincha for 10 breaths for another week or so. Once I can do this consistently and with stability, I will then start working with Frank's suggestion to try to curl the feet/lotus around the sacrum with lots of emphasis on engaging the bandhas.  Hopefully, by doing this, I will one day be able to build up the stability and control needed to "land the duck"  (and come back up). But no rush here: All in its own time, as some wise person once said.

I think second series is a very interesting thing. If we compare going through the various series in Ashtanga to traveling through different landscapes, we can think of primary series as this more or less even terrain marked mainly by forward bends and hip-openers. There is a place somewhere in the middle of this terrain where you have to scale this rather formidable structure in order to get to a plateau made up of 4 postures that are roughly equal in levels of difficulty (Bhujapidasana, Kurmasana, Supta Kurmasana, and Garbha Pindasana). After Garbha, one descends from this plateau, and traverses a terrain that is considerably less demanding all the way to the end (Baddha Konasana all the way to Setu Bandhasana).

But second series presents a very different kind of terrain. You start on a considerably higher level of elevation (the first posture, Pasasana, is arguably more demanding than many of the postures in primary series), and the rest of the series basically stays on that level of elevation. Except for two very formidable peaks: Kapotasana and Karandavasana. Well, there's also the fabled "seven deadlies" (the seven headstand variations later in the second series), but since I haven't been given these deadlies, I don't feel qualified to talk about them, so I'll leave them out of the picture.

Anyway, as I was saying, Kapotasana and Karandavasana represent these "twin peaks" in the terrain of second series (at least as far as I'm concerned). And the twin peaks are each very demanding in their own ways. In my opinion, Kapotasana requires a certain kind of effortful surrender on the part of the practitioner: I do the things that I can do to get deeply into the posture (bring my hips forward, draw my sternum up towards the ceiling, "hang" till I can see the tips of my toes in the edge of my vision, and then do whatever walking I need to do with my hands to get them to the heels). But there's a sense in which the posture kind of has to do itself; all the things I can do are, in a sense, just things that put my body into a certain condition where it is best able to get into the posture comfortably and stably. At some point, when this condition is met, the posture will open, and this opening into the posture is, in a sense, beyond my direct control. This is where the surrender comes in: You basically do all the work you can do, and then allow the posture to open up.

I'm no expert on Karandavasana (as you probably can tell by now), but I get the sense that working with Karandavasana productively involves a different dynamic. From the perspective of a casual observer, it might seem that Karandavasana primarily requires great physical strength. But I think this is quite far from the truth. I suppose one does need a certain level of upper body strength, enough to be able to hold pincha mayurasana for at least 10 to 15 breaths. But I sense that working successfully with the rest of the posture (getting into lotus, curling into and landing the duck, and uncurling back up) requires a certain finesse, a certain intimate knowledge of how to use one's inner strength to distribute one's weight at certain points at certain precise moments. All of which is something I am just starting to scratch the surface of. At the risk of sounding a little too clever, I might even venture to say that Karandavasana in a sense demands the diametric opposite of Kapotasana from the practitioner: It demands "surrender-ful effort" from the practitioner. A certain amount of strength is needed, but one must use this strength in such a way that takes into account of and respects the many finer details involved in the process of negotiating the intricate movements involved in getting into the posture. One needs to use one's strength with a mind to surrendering it to the service of this process.  


  1. I can't wait 'til I start intermediate series! No idea when that will happen. I think the strength poses will be tougher for me than kapotasana. Not that I can do the full kapotasana yet; I just don't care much for grabbing my ankles at the moment. I'm a sloppy Ashtangi I guess.

  2. A (rather advanced) teacher who was here for a couple of months explained to the person practicing next to me one day that Karandavasana is "a balancing exercise". Thus, when you said Karandavasana was about "distribut[ing] one's weight at certain points at certain precise moments", I think you hit the nail on the head.

  3. Hello Yyogini, I don't think you are being a sloppy Ashtangi. And yes, second series is a lot of fun. And quite possibly, by the time you get to karandavasana, you would have built up quite a bit of upper-body strength: There are all the jump-backs and jump-throughs of primary series, as well as Bakasana A and B in second, and pincha mayurasana to build up all your upper-body strength.

    Very cool, Frank! Good to know that I have perceived the challenge of Karandavasana correctly :-)