Saturday, May 19, 2012

Laghu Vajrasana: Strength, commitment and non-attachment

This post is inspired by Claudia's recent post about her adventures over the past year with Laghu Vajrasana. In the video above, Kino and her model Julia Lofstrand goes into great detail about how to build up the strength needed to eventually perform the full expression of this powerful posture, whose name can be translated from the Sanskrit as either "Little Thunderbolt Pose" or "Lovely Thunderbolt Pose". Very interesting names, considering that there is definitely nothing little about this pose, considering the great front body strength and openness needed to perform it properly. As for lovely... well, you do get a lovely, strong body from working on this pose regularly :-)

Here are a few thoughts I have about this posture:

(1) In the video, Kino suggests that a good way to build up the strength to eventually do the full expression of the posture is by lowering one's head down only to the point where one still has the strength to come back up. The idea is to gradually and progressively build up the strength to bring the head all the way to the ground and then come back up. Gregor Maehle suggests the same thing in his book on the intermediate series as well.

(2) Kino's and Maehle's way of building up to the full posture is the smart way to get to the full posture. But if you are a little bit more stubborn (and maybe not so smart), you can also try the not-so-smart way of getting to the full posture: Basically, you just keep going all the way down to the ground until one day, you suddenly "find" the right muscles in your quads to bring you back up. This is pretty much how I learnt the posture; using this not-so-smart method, it took me about a month to be able to come back up from having my head on the ground.

A word of warning: It may be argued by some that this not-so-smart method of learning Laghu is a little bit more dangerous: You may bump your head on the mat, which is not fun. Fortunately, this didn't happen to me too much. And I also did not sustain any concussions or permanent head damage as a result of these head bumps... well, at least not that I am presently aware of: It is always possible that I may wake up tomorrow morning with no recollection of who I am... and then you will see the following headlines in the NYT: (A) World-famous Ashtangi Nobel sustains permanent brain damage as a result of concussions sustained from practicing Lovely Thunderbolt Posture; (B) US Government orders moratorium on the practice of yoga after recent brain injuries sustained by World-famous Ashtangi Nobel (C) Yoga-wrecks-your-body-expert William Broad to release new book linking the practice of yoga to concussions and permanent brain damage.

(3) Wow, I'm being rather self-important, aren't I? Maybe I do have brain damage, after all... Well, let's change the subject a little. As with many other postures in Ashtanga, even after you attain the full expression of Laghu, there is a distinction that can be made between the "correct expression" and the "incorrect expression" of the posture. I use quotation marks here, because it's really not so much a matter of being correct or incorrect as it is a matter of which parts of the body you are opening with the particular expression of the posture you are doing. What do I mean? Well, to begin with, there are two places the hands can grab in Laghu (i) the ankles/lower calves (which is what Kino's model Julia is doing), or (ii) the middle or upper calves.

If I remember correctly, Gregor Maehle recommends (ii) as a variation of Laghu, because grabbing the middle or upper calves allows the posture to get more into opening the chest, enabling one to achieve a deeper backbend in Laghu. For the longest time, this is what I did, because I was trying to open the chest as much as possible, in preparation for the powerful posture that comes immediately after Laghu (the famous and often dreaded Kapotasana).

But last July, at his Minneapolis workshop, Matthew Sweeney saw me doing (ii), and promptly corrected me. He told me that Maehle is simply wrong. The basic purpose of Laghu, Sweeney says, is not a backbend, but to strengthen the quads and the front body in general. Grabbing the middle/upper calves actually makes it easier to come up, which also undermines the quad-strengthening function of this posture. He also remarked that it is possible to turn Laghu into a chest-opening backbend by grabbing the knees instead of the ankles; but doing so turns the posture into a backbend, making it no longer a quad-strengthening posture. Seen in this light, he continues, grabbing the middle/upper calves is the worst deal of all: One gets only 50% of the chest-opening afforded by grabbing the knees, and only 50% of the quad-strengthening afforded by grabbing the ankles, making it a neither-here-nor-there posture. Something to think about, no? :-)

(4) I also can't help feeling that practicing Laghu Vajrasana offers a valuable lesson which we can apply to life off the mat. Just as it requires deep and powerful strength to be able to bring our heads all the way to the mat without releasing so much into the mat that the head becomes "attached" to it and is unable to come back up, it also requires great inner strength to be able to approach the many obligations and roles that we play in our daily lives with a spirit of full and total commitment, and yet be able to do so in such a way that we do not become so attached to these obligations and roles that we are unable to remove ourselves from them and move on when our obligations and roles have been fully discharged.       


  1. Wow, that was an AMAZING post. You had me cracking up on number 2 "Ashtangi Nobel sustains permanent brain damage as a result of concussions sustained from practicing Lovely Thunderbolt Posture" HA HA HA HA

    Thanks for sharing the tip from Sweeney, AND wonderful note on the last point, on the metaphor for life. Loved it!

    1. Thanks Claudia :-) I think I am slowly regaining my self-aggrandizing brand of humor. This may be a sign that I am finally starting to recover from the brain damage...

  2. Sweeney rocks. 'Nuff said.

  3. Perfect timing for me with this post, as I'm currently trying to cough up a piece about why I cry in my Ashtanga practice all the freakin time. And of all the reasons that I've cried on my mat, Laghu has been the main culprit! Not so much recently since my practice has been modified and I'm barely looking at my Second Series poses, but when I first got that pose, it pushed all my limits and made me very frustrated. I felt so weak in that pose and I would constantly get stuck with my head on the floor and it made me feel like such a pathetic mess. It's definitely one of those ego-killing poses, IMO. Second Series throws a few of those at us (starting with pasasana)...not fancy looking poses, but ones that require great strength, practice and determination!
    Anyways, I'm linking your post to mine now.

    1. Yes, Frances, I definitely hear you about the second series poses being ego-killing in nature... maybe Nadi Shodana doesn't just mean purifying the nervous system, but also means purifying the spirit of ego... in particular, try doing pasasana the morning after a heavy dinner of Mysore Masala Dosa (see my latest post for more details :-)).

      Look forward to reading your post. I hope you heal from your injury quickly.