Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Backbends; Anybody know how to unsquish the Karandavasana?

Practice this morning was interesting. I did second only up to Karandavasana. Here are a couple of things that are worthy of note (at least to me):

(1) Backbends: I have recently come to the conclusion that I am not opening my thoracic spine enough in backbends. I say this, because in the last couple of weeks, I have been feeling a certain ache in my lower back whenever I come out of a deep backbend (like Kapotasana, for instance). It doesn't seem to be anything serious: The ache always goes away by the time I finish practice. But it's something to think about, nonetheless. So I have decided to do some things to try to address it:

(i) In Kapotasana B, for the longest time, I had placed my hands next to my heels, as I thought that made for a deeper backbend. However, at Matthew Sweeney (MS)'s workshop in July, MS suggested that I should try placing my hands next to my toes instead; according to him, placing my hands next to my heels was causing me to arch too much in the lumbar spine. I followed his suggestion, and made the change accordingly, and have been placing my hands next to my toes in Kapo B ever since: Which means that I would go into Kapo A, grab the heels for five to ten breaths, and then transition into Kapo B by letting go of my heels and placing my hands next to my toes.

Today, however, I decided on the spur of the moment to try placing my hands next to my heels again in Kapo B, just to see whether it would make any difference to that achy feeling in my lower back. And the interesting thing is, when I came out of Kapo B from that hands-next-to-heels position, there was no achy feeling in my lower back at all. Interesting, don't you think? Perhaps this means that, between MS's workshop and now, my body has changed in such a way that placing my hands next to my heels in Kapo B does not cause me to arch too much in the lumbar spine anymore, and may instead be good for my lower back now. But it's still too early to make any sort of definitive judgment right now. I guess I'll continue with this configuration of Kapo B for a couple more weeks, and see what happens.

(ii) For the longest time, in the finishing backbends, I have been dropping back with my hands in prayer position on my chest. I would simply arch back with my hands in prayer on my chest, and then extend my arms to the ground at the last moment. It's always worked so far.

Recently, I read a comment by somebody on somebody else's blog (I think it was a comment Bindy made on Savasanaaddict's blog) where the commenter said that according to Dena Kingsberg, it is actually healthier for the spine to drop back with arms extended and overhead rather than in prayer position. According to Kingsberg, the arms-overhead position opens the thoracic spine more, and prevents the lumbar spine from moving forward too much. So this morning, I decided to try this arm-overhead position again. I say again, because I have actually tried this position a couple of times in the past before, but I did not stick with it, as I found it hard to control the speed of the dropback with my arms overhead (lack of core strength/bandha engagement, perhaps?); I would find myself plunging towards the mat at full speed and just barely stopping myself with my hands at the last moment. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to try this arms-overhead position again this morning. To my pleasant surprise, I had better control this morning than in the past: It wasn't a perfectly slow and deliberate drop back, but I was able to control the motion enough not to just plunge back into the backbend. And my back actually felt pretty good throughout :-) I'll keep working with this arms-overhead position, and see where this takes me from this point.

I've heard so much about Dena Kingsberg, about what a strict teacher she is. I think she will so totally call out all my weird antics and habits if I ever study with her... I know that Pakistani Ashtangi is studying with her now, and has posted a few very detailed posts about her studies on her blog.

(2) Karandavasana: For the last two or three weeks, I have been able to land the duck in Karandavasana quite regularly. In fact, for the last few days, I have been able to land the duck on my first attempt, so that I do not have to make a second attempt.

I am still unable to come back up. Every time I finish the five breaths with my lotus on my upper arms, I try to summon the strength to push the lotus up and away from the upper arms, but it always seems that either my body feels very heavy, or I seem to have run out of gas and have to come out of the posture, or both. Anybody out there have any tips on how to come back up into the forearm balance from lotus-on-upper-arms? In his recent post, Grimmly observed that accomplished "Karandavasaners" such as Laruga are able to keep their upper body lifted and not squished throughout the entire posture. I think this may have something to it: I have never seen myself in Karandavasana, but my Karandavasana definitely feels squished. Anybody out there have any tips about how to "unsquish" the Karandavasana?

In other news: 

(1) The temperature actually got up to 90 degrees fahrenheit today. 90 degrees in October in the upper-midwest. Now try telling me global warming is a hoax...

(2) In a couple of weeks (on the weekend of October 21st to 23rd), I'll be driving to Davenport, Iowa to present my procrastination paper at another philosophy conference. And then, a couple of weeks after that (from November 4th to 6th), I'll be in Portland, Oregon presenting the same paper at another conference. If you live in Davenport (or the general area), and would possibly like to hang out with me, please get in touch with me. I don't know if there are any Ashtanga shalas in Davenport; in any case, my schedule there seems pretty crazy, and I don't think I will be able to go to a shala if there is one. But it would be great to meet anybody out there who reads this blog, nonetheless. :-) 


  1. Yes it was Bindi's comment on my blog - thanks for trying it out and sharing your experience! Your observation about having better control is music to my ears because that's the challenge I'm facing right now. Good to know that the control will come after years (???) of working at it ;)

    On global warming - it's early October and we're having rain and 59F weather in California, it's winter one month too early!

  2. Happy to be of service, savasanaaddict :-) Well, actually, it doesn't have to take years; at MS's workshop in July, I actually tried that arm-overhead drop-back, and I didn't have quite as much control as I do now.

    Yeah, global warming... (don't even get me started on this...).

  3. Yes, you need to start working on "Half-ways". Do your regular Karandavasana once. Then repeat, but instead of going all the way down, go only as far as you can and still come back up (it may take you a couple of tries to figure out how far you can go). Then, over time, you will go lower and lower (and still come back up). Eventually, you will be able to touch down onto the arms and come back up. Then perhaps you stay 1 breath and come back up, then 2, etc.

    In fact, I'd suggest that you will most likely not be able to come up after holding the pose until/unless you can can touch down and come back up (immediately, without staying in the pose). The key to coming up, then, is not the ability to "land" Karandavasana, but the ability to *touch down in* Karandavasana. I think people who are working on this pose (myself included until recently) suppose that they can generate enough momentum while in the state of the asana to propel themselves up to a point where they can lift the rest of the way. I've never seen anyone do that. When you are controlled the whole way down (i.e., lowering gently and not "landing"), then I think you have a shot at coming up.

    As for drop-backs, I have done them many ways. I like the method of using straight arms more in the beginning stages. The advantage to doing it that way is that you don't have to shift your weight to accommodate your arms changing position (going overhead), since if you start with the arms straight they are already in position. Thus there is less to coordinate. Eventually, though, I think you should switch to the prayer-position version (perhaps as your last one, then your last 2--you can wean yourself off the straight-armed version). However, I think the standard approach to prayer-position drop-backs is not ideal; there is a better way. Instead of normal prayer position, take the prayer higher: elbows together in front of the sternum. Then use the arms as something to press the chest against. You will feel far more opening in the thoracic spine if you do it this way. I have not seen anyone teach it this way except for Luke Jordan, whom I learned this from last winter (thank you, Luke), and I can say I think it's far superior. Also, since I switched to this version, no one has complained or corrected me about it, nor otherwise changed how I'm doing back-bending. :-)

    Also, the above technique applies to Kapotasana as well. However, I still recommend taking the arms over the head as soon as the thoracic is fully opened. And keep the elbows bent. I see a vast majority of people trying to do Kapo straightening their arms as they take them overhead, and I think you need certain proportions to be able to come right to the feet or heels with straight arms (or maybe after many years...). Need bent elbows so that you can pin your elbows to your head and stretch your shoulders by pushing the head into the elbows. A year and a half after figuring out that trick, I still do it that way probably half the time. In any case, straight arms in Kapo are a recipe for struggling on the ground, methinks. But the point here was that you'll have an easier time with Kapo if you begin with the arms in the higher prayer position and get the extra opening in the thoracic. Then take the dive (however you want to keep your arms for that part).

  4. Thanks for the Karandavasana coming-up tip, Frank. Sounds a lot like learning to come up from Laghu Vajrasana (the idea of going down as far as you can and still be able to come back up), except the body is moving in a different direction, and a whole different set of muscles are involved. Thanks, I'll try it. Well, it looks like my practice time just got longer :-)

    As for dropbacks: "Instead of normal prayer position, take the prayer higher: elbows together in front of the sternum. Then use the arms as something to press the chest against. You will feel far more opening in the thoracic spine if you do it this way."

    Very interesting. I'll give this a try, and see what happens.

  5. Yes, this is why it's good to drop Primary (or at least the back half) once working on Karandavasana. As I mentioned before, you don't want the really long practice to prevent you from spending enough time on Karandavasana, which one can find oneself attempting 5 or 6 times on some days.... ;-)

  6. Yes, Frank, I agree with you :-)