Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Practice Report: Adventures with the Mighty Duck

Before I go on with this post, a little disclaimer of sorts is in order: You might not find this post to be of much interest if you are not working on the second series (but then again, you might...). But I think that since I practice Ashtanga, and this is a yoga blog, I should blog about my practice at least some of the time. So here goes. For the past week or so, I have been doing second only up to Karandavasana. Progress has been very, very modest, but I feel that I am working productively with the posture. A couple of things have helped:

(1) Perspective: This is really the second time I have tried splitting since I was first given Karandavasana by my teacher in Milwaukee more than a year ago. Karandavasana invokes great awe, respect, and I will admit, even fear in me. As I mentioned in previous posts (see, for example, this post), I tweaked my right knee in Karandavasana last year; this, together with an SI joint injury, forced me to scale my practice back to primary only for a few months.

Upon further reflection, I don't think it is, strictly speaking, correct to say that I tweaked my right knee in Karandavasana. Over the past few weeks, I've had the chance to reconstruct the chain of events that happened last year, and what I think really happened is this: Due to lack of openness in the right hip, the right knee probably took more pressure than it was supposed to in Karandavasana, which led to instability in that knee. In the excitement that came with getting a new posture, I didn't notice this instability. One morning, as I was sitting in a kneeling position while doing my Buddhist prayers, I shifted in such a way that tweaked that right knee (I tend to shift my body weight in ways that are not anatomically sound when I am half-awake in the morning). So the immediate cause or trigger of the injury wasn't Karandavasana per se. But it is still fair to say that Karandavasana (or more precisely, my inattention while working on Karandavasana) created the underlying conditions for the injury.

I'm not sure if you would care about all these blow-by-blow details of how I hurt myself, but the point to take away is this: The key to working safely and productively with Karandavasana lies in opening the hips enough, so that there is less pressure on the knees. The problem with second series(at least for me) is that, unlike primary, with all those hip-opening padmasana variations, there is very little external-hip-opening build-up towards Karandavasana: One is expected to go into Padmasana "cold" immediately after Kapotasana, and the only lotus variation one gets to do is in Bharadvajasana. And then it's Karandavasana. 
(2) Preparatory pose: I have come up with a rather unorthodox way of getting around this problem. I have started doing double-pigeon pose (some folks call it Firelog, but it's basically the same thing) before I begin  my practice in the morning. Doing this pose, along with a couple of half-padmasana variations after that, does a lot to open my hips, so that I don't go into second from standing "cold". Which helps take pressure off the knees in Karandavasana.

[Image taken from Yoga Journal]

Well, at this point, I think a couple of readers might be laughing. Back in the day, when I was new to the blogosphere and young and reckless, I once challenged a blogger about the value of doing "warm-up" postures before the beginning of practice (I shall not name names here, but I think you know who you are, and you are welcome to call me out on this if you want to; I'm ready to eat some humble pie here :-)). My contention at that time was: Why would anybody need to do warm-up postures, given that the practice itself is already complete? Wouldn't doing warm-up postures constitute a "cop-out"? Well, here I am doing a warm-up posture! But maybe one day my hips will open up enough, to the point where I won't need to do any warm-up postures before practice. We'll see.

Here's the shape of my Karandavasana at this point: As of right now, I am able to get up into Pincha Mayurasana, get my feet into a fairly snug lotus, try to curl my lotus around my pelvis, and on a "good" attempt, land my lotus on my elbows for like a split second before I lose grip, and land on my butt. So I'm still working on trying to "land the duck." Hmm... I guess if you do not do Karandavasana, this talk of curling the lotus around the pelvis probably won't make much sense to you. Well, here's Kino's instructional video on Karandavasana, or the Mighty Duck Pose, as she calls it. From 1:35 to 1:40 and again from 3:10 to 3:17, you'll see Kino's model curling her lotus around her pelvis:

Well, suffice to say that my Karandavasana is nowhere near as graceful or effortless as Kino's model in this video. So it'll be a while (if ever) before you see any pictures or videos of me in Mighty Duck Posture: Right now, I'm still a Sitting Duck that's trying to grow into a Mighty Duck :-)       


  1. hee hee... "a Sitting Duck that's trying to grow into a Mighty Duck"...love that!
    I'm right there with you. ;)

  2. Hi Nobel!
    I've been reading/enjoying your blog for a while now. You always seems to write about issues relevant to what I'm working on or have been through. Thanks you.
    I'm also working on karandavasana. . My work is mostly in supporting my body in pincha while folding the legs. Then of course the curling in. On most days I start the decent nice and controlled but then about midway, I lose control and crash down. I feel this is one of the most challenging poses in second.
    Anyway, you were talking about hip opening in second. Don't you feel all the leg behind the head poses open your hips? Maybe try to deepen those poses a bit and see if it helps.
    Thanks for writing such an articulate and informative blog!
    On another note, I uses to live in Minneapolis and I practiced at the yoga house!

  3. This is where an assist will come in handy: I can almost guarantee that the reason you're only landing for a split second and not staying is because you haven't come far enough forward. I went through this phase, and I've seen it of others (because a few of us who were having this problem at the same time would...gasp!...watch each other and listen to the teacher's instructions & hints). Getting an assist in this every single day for about 8 weeks was key for me--that way, I could feel how far forward I had to come in order to land and stay. Without the assist, you'll feel like if you come farther forward you'll topple over (like one might feel in jumping into Bakasana B), so you'll have to trust yourself a whole lot more. :-)

    As for the hips, that's a sore spot for me right now. I spent months working up to getting a deeper and deeper Supta Vajrasana (without the benefit of Primary beforehand) until I could finally bind and stay bound throught the pose. That lasted a few months, and then I went on vacation at the end of June. Practice was fine while I was away--no issues with anything in my full practice (to Galavasana at the time). I came back, and all of a sudden I can't get a tight Supta Vajrasana--can barely get into lotus at that point! Really bizarre! And having had one certified and 2 level-2-authorzied teachers at my disposal since then, the conclusion has been that I just need to wait it out and hopefully it will return, and for now Supta Vajrasana "is what it is", which was from this morning's debacle. It's certainly not worth busting my knees over. Now, I find that both twists in 2nd help prepare me for Karandavasana, so even if it's not a very tight lotus, I can at least do the posture acceptably. But then the problem recurs in 3rd Series. Urdhva Kukkutasana A & C are fine, because they can be done with a looser lotus, but not Urdhva Kukkutasana B; a tighter lotus is required for that. Some days I can make it happen; other days I abort my mission. Lotus is a very involved posture, and the hips are an extremely complicated area, so it's too much simplification to say that the leg-behind-the-head poses "open the hips" for lotus.

    In fact, I've realized lately that it's entirely too imprecise to talk about "opening the hips", and I now believe that that term should be avoided whever possible. Leg-Behind-head postures mostly work on hip flexion (bending forward past the leg, like in Marichyasana A), and also external hip rotation (though you can do leg-behind-head postures with a lot of hip flexion and very little external rotation. See here--sorry, can only find on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=207051572643081&set=a.207051049309800.63295.125627657452140&type=1&theater).

    In any case, lotus also requires an incredible amount of knee flexion (via lengthening of the quadriceps and hip flexors) and adduction (squeezing legs together with hip adductors) to do properly. Leg-behind-head postures actually involve the opposite action of the hip flexors (contraction) as lotus does (elongation).

    So, the simple answer is no: making the leg-behind-head postures deeper will not necessarily help "open the hips" for lotus in Karandavasana. Nor do 5 additional leg-behind-head postures in 3rd Series "open the hips" sufficiently for Urdhva Kukkutasana B.

  4. Thanks for the encouraging words, Christine :-)

    Sophia, it's really cool that you used to practice at the Yoga House too :-)

    Sophia and Frank, for the record, I actually succeeded in landing the duck for a full five breaths without an assist this morning, for the first time in recorded history. I think I succeeded because I was able to come forward far enough while curling the lotus, so as to maintain enough control to land softly on the upper arms. So yes, Frank, I think the key is coming forward far enough. But today was only the first time I did it; we'll see if this sticks tomorrow.

    I think you are right, Frank, that the kind of hip opening required for lotus is different from the kind required for leg-behind-head postures. Gregor Maehle discusses this in his book as well, although I cannot remember the exact anatomical terms he uses. So, all in all, working on deepening LBH probably has only a very limited effect on deepening the lotus.

    In a recent video, David Keil says that the Gluteus Medius muscle actually plays a big part in contributing the to flexion needed for lotus, and Double Pigeon helps with opening this area. I have been working with this posture, and have found it very helpful. Although one can only do Double Pigeon outside of the practice, since it is not part of the vinyasa.

  5. How about Tiriang mukha...? I don't feel that stretch in any other pose I do. Not in Krounchasana or in Bharadvajasana. It's kind of easy to forget about it and rush through but there's something in that forward bend that stretches the inside of my knee real well. But I don't know...it's so different för everyone. Anyway, I think one thing in karandavasana is getting the lotus real tight. Makes it easyier to stay on the elbows. At least that is what I'm told. I can only do it with assist :-) (and I don't like it because there's always the risk of kicking someone in the face when I come out of it...)

  6. Hello Helena,
    Interesting suggestion. I have always thought of Triang Mukha as a front-body/psoas opener; but I think you are probably right that it stretches the inside of the knee as well. Have to pay more attention to this posture the next time I do it.

    Yes. kicking somebody in the face in Karandavasana is not fun indeed...