Monday, January 30, 2012

Should Yoga Hurt? Or, how to do Kapotasana and not die from back pain

This post is a response to Steve's recent post on this topic over at the Confluence Countdown.

First, allow me, as a non-native English speaker, to bring your attention to a linguistic/semantic issue here: The trouble with the word "hurt" is that it encompasses an entire universe of physical and mental phenomena, all of which probably have nothing very much in common with each other, other than their propensity to induce some kind of noticeably strong unpleasant sensation in you. For instance, when you get passed over by your boss for a promotion--or, in an Ashtanga context, when you get passed over by your teacher for that next pose in the series--it "hurts." And when you are doing a pose that gets into your psoas really deeply, that burning sensation also "hurts." And then again, when--Shiva forbid--you tear your hamstring at the attachment and walk funny for six months or more, that "hurts" too.  Of course, the "hurt" in each of these cases refers to a different kind of thing with different causes, and may be good or bad for you.

But that's precisely my point. What kind of hurt are we talking about here? In a sense, it may not matter. Anybody who has attended any of David Williams' workshops will know his more-or-less famous words, "If it hurts, you're doing it wrong." Plain and simple. Well, if Williams is right (and why shouldn't he be? After all, he was one of the first westerners to go to Mysore and study with Guruji, and he's been practicing longer than I have been alive), then my practice is seriously wrong, because I cannot in all honesty say that my practice has never hurt before.

But now that I know that I am doing it wrong (or at least, have done it wrong before), what am I going to do about it? One option is to quit Ashtanga forever, and maybe take up one of the new trendy yogas that Steve has outlined in this recent post. But I'm not quite ready to do this yet (maybe when I turn 60, instead of doing the rishi series, I will switch to one of these new trendy yogas; if they're still new and trendy at that time, of course :-)). So what to do? Well, the only thing to do, as I see it, is to talk asana: Go into the specifics of the physical practice, and see how to make it not hurt (or at least hurt less). I'll start with something Steve says in his post. He writes:

"Which of us hasn’t had a teacher stand on us in Baddha Konasana? What about that last little stretch in Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana? And, judging from the noise folks make in Kapotasana, I suspect it isn’t exactly pleasant." 

Wow, this is quite a lot to chew on. Well, first, I've actually never had a teacher stand on me in Baddha Konasana. So I can't say anything about this. What about that "last little stretch" in Mari D and Supta K? Well, speaking from my own experience, I have found that if one wants to get deeper in either of these postures, it's actually more productive to work on either the hip-opening postures that come before these postures in primary, or spend more time working on hip-openers outside of the practice altogether (longer holds in Baddha Konasana, double-pigeon, etc.). I have found that pursuing either of these strategies is ultimately more productive (and less hurt-inducing) than trying to "inch" one's way into that last little stretch while in the posture itself.

What about Kapotasana? Ha, now we're talking about a whole world of hurt. First, I'm not a natural backbender; Kino once told me half-jokingly that Ashtangis can broadly be divided into two types: people with open hips and stiff backs, and people with open backs and stiff hips. I fall into the former type. Not being a natural backbender, I have to work pretty hard in backbends to get the hips far enough forward so that I can get into the psoas rather than just the lower back, and get my upper and middle back to open so that more of the backbending comes from my upper and middle back rather than solely from my lumbar spine.

Nowhere is this work more apparent than in Kapotasana. Although I have been doing Kapotasana for almost two years now, I still have to "hang" for a few breaths before I dive for my feet in Kapo (depending on the condition of my spine on a particular day, "few" can be anywhere from three to five to ten breaths). The sensation of waiting for whatever it is in the spine that needs to open to open is not exactly pleasant, but I wouldn't categorize it as "hurt" either.  It's just... not pleasant. And it's probably not pleasant because it's not a position that my usually-hunched-forward-over-a-computer-or-steering-wheel body finds natural.

But I did go through a period when Kapotasana hurt. Like hell. Here's the whole story. I was first given Kapo by my teacher at his shala in Milwaukee. Within a few weeks, he managed to assist me into grabbing my heels. At that time, I had yet to be able to stand up from dropping back (I guess my teacher isn't traditional in this way). And then something in my lower back started to hurt, and my teacher suggested that I stop doing Kapo for a few weeks, and work on really being able to stand up from dropping back. His theory was that my inability to stand up indicated a lack of strength/stability somewhere in the spine, and that lack of strength/stability was causing my lower back to hurt. Sounds like a very reasonable theory, I thought. So I stopped doing Kapo for a few weeks, and focused my attention on dropping back and standing up. After a few weeks, I started doing Kapo again. After another couple of weeks, I was able to grab my heels on my own, by first landing my hands on the ground, and then walking them until they grab the heels.

And this was when things started to hurt big time. For about two weeks after I began to grab my heels by myself in Kapo, I would wake up every morning with really bad back pain. It was so bad, that I had to slowly crawl out of bed and kind of crawl/walk to the bathroom. At the same time, my teacher was in Mysore, so I couldn't ask him what to do to stop the hurt. One obvious way to stop the hurt is, of course, to simply stop doing Kapo, or maybe not go so deeply into the posture. But I discovered that not going so deeply into the posture actually made the back hurt even more (don't know why). And I was too stubborn/crazy to stop doing the posture altogether; it's things like this that make me think that many Ashtangis (at least this Ashtangi) are crazy egomaniacs; I mean, any normal person would have just freaked out and stopped doing it, right? Maybe even write everything up and send it to the NYT for a wreck-your-body-worthy article. But not this crazy Ashtangi. But even this Ashtangi couldn't endure the indignity of having to crawl out of bed every morning. So I had to find some way of reducing the hurt... no, I didn't take any painkillers or drugs or steroids. Instead, I suddenly thought of a posture sequence that I learnt from Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane on Maui a few years ago. Eddie and Nicki did not say anything about this sequence's ability to reduce back pain, but somehow, in my pain, my mind/body managed to make the connection between my present hurt and this sequence. Anyway, here's the sequence:

(1) Get into Mandukasana. Stay in Mandukasana for five to ten breaths.

Mandukasana, back and front view
[image taken from here and here]     

(2) From Mandukasana, transition into Uttanasana (standing forward fold). Stay in Uttanasana for about 5 to ten breaths. 

Repeat (1) and (2) three to five times, or as many times as desired, until back pain subsides. 

So, for about a week or so, I would do this sequence first thing in the morning. After a week or so, the back pain went away. So I have Eddie and Nicki to thank for saving my back and allowing me to continue doing Kapotasana to this day. I have reproduced this sequence here for anybody out there who may find this useful someday. After all, Kapotasana is a formidable posture. We need all the help we can get while working with it. To this day, I still don't know the exact anatomical reasons for why this sequence was so helpful in relieving the back pain that I experienced when first working with Kapo. Maybe somebody like David Keil would be able to explain why... At any rate, it's not always why something works that matters. What's important is that it works, right?

Wow. What a post. What started as a response to Steve's remarks on hurt has morphed into this long post about how to do Kapotasana without killing yourself. This is one of the funny things about blogging: You start out intending to write one post, and then the post kind of takes on a life of its own, and becomes a totally different creature. Oh, well; all in a day's blogging. I'm a little blogged out now, so I guess I'll sign off. I hope you find some of this to be useful in some way.  


  1. Hi Nobel.

    Glad I gave you "food for thought." And while I can't say much on your thoughts on Kapo, I think you have hit on one very important point: the meaning of hurt. (I probably should now go over and write a post on this, right? That's how we do it?)

    I probably do mean it in the most base way possible: You should feel the pose -- your should be stretching yourself a little more, a little beyond the "comfort zone." OK, on second thought, perhaps I mean more "not comfortable" than "hurt."

    We're starting to see why this is a trick word in this context, right?

    What about "hurt" emotionally? But is that a bad thing? If a backbend or something brings up an emotion that is temporarily "painful," that's not necessarily bad in the long run, right?

    Ah! Now I'm getting to my point, and it goes back to the idea of Ashtanga as Tapasya. In the practice (on and off the mat) you should be confronting different trials, pushing through "pain," burning away the "bad fat" -- all as a way to see more clearly, get through the maya and find the way to the Atman.

    And I just can't believe that that is something that comes easily. And thus it "hurts."

    Well, at least that's how I'm thinking about it right now.

    Thanks for giving me more food for thought!


    1. Very interesting thoughts, Steve. I would like to say more about these, but I can't do it here without going manifesto. So maybe I'll take some time to let these thoughts percolate, and possibly write more about them at some point. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, that's amazing that you kept practicing even though the pose brought you pain at the time.. I'm the wimp who wants to quit at the first sign of weirdness in the body. Good to keep your experience in mind.

    1. Thanks Yyogini. I think there are times when there is a very fine line between perseverance and sheer insanity, and my Kapo experience is one of those times. I'm still amazed and grateful that I came out of it in one piece.

  3. I've try yoga several times, and I did not yet try that position. I hope that It can also help my back pain.

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