Monday, November 5, 2012

Deep forward bending, deep backbending and getting assists; or, how to have your hips open like a durian

This morning, I did primary up to Supta Padangusthasana, followed by second up to Yoganidrasana. This has been my practice for the last two or three weeks.

Over the last week or so, I have been noticing an interesting interplay/tension between the leg-behind-head postures and the second series backbends. When I get to Supta Kurmasana, I am able to put my legs quite easily behind my head. By the way, I have been getting into Supta K from Dwipada Sirsasana; I understand that there is quite a bit of disagreement among Ashtangis as to whether it is "kosher" to get into Supta K this way. From what I hear, Sharath is okay with this method of entering Supta K, but a number of senior teachers are not favorably disposed towards this method of entry, as they think that it violates the correct vinyasa count. But this will have to wait for another post.

Anyway, as I was saying, I can get my head quite easily behind my head in Supta K via dwipada. But I have been noticing that when I get to the leg-behind-head postures in second series after doing all those backbends (including our favorite pose, Kapotasana ;-)), it becomes harder to put my leg behind my head. I mean, I still am able to get the leg/s behind the head, but the hips feel tighter and the foot doesn't go quite as far down the neck/upper back quite as easily. I'm guessing that anatomically, the reason for this is that effective execution of backbends (especially deep ones like Kapo) require a substantial amount of inward rotation of the thighs, whereas effective execution of deep forward bends like leg-behind-head postures require a substantial amount of the opposite action, i.e. external rotation of the thighs and hip rotators. This being the case, a body (at least, this body) that is accustomed to doing a lot of deep backbending may not be able to transition so readily to the diametrically opposite muscular actions required of deep forward bending. At least not yet. Perhaps, over the course of Dirgha Kala (this is becoming my favorite phrase :-)), things will gradually even out, one way or the other.

In any case, so far I am only considering things on a purely physiological/anatomical level. Ashtanga practice (especially second series and beyond) is just as much about the bandhas and the energetic level as it is about the physiological/anatomical. I think David Garrigues wrote somewhere that in third series, one often has to go from extreme forward bending in one asana to extreme backbending in the next, and that without strong and constant bandha engagement, the practitioner will not be able to pull this off safely. I don't do third series, but perhaps if we look at second series in the light of David's words here, we can think of second series as a sort of "training wheels" version of third series: Unlike third series, there is actually a "buffer zone" between the backbends and the leg-behind-head postures in second series (consisting of Bakasana, Bharadvajasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana), which gives one extra space to prep and transition one's body from deep backbends to deep forward bends. So all in all, perhaps the real secret to transiting effectively from deep backbending to deep forward bending is in strong bandha engagement. Gotta work on that.


But sometimes, in my more wistful moments, I can't help thinking that I could use some strong assists in deep forward-bending, especially in Yoganidrasana. Speaking of which, here's a recent video of Tim Feldmann adjusting some, ahem, lucky soul in said asana:

It's nice to get assisted in this posture, with a teacher you trust, of course (Tim did mention at the end of the video that you don't want to try this assist on a student that is a little jumpy or that you don't know.).

At her workshop in Richmond last year, Kino also assisted me in this same posture; she did a different version in which she stepped both her feet on my hips; which means that she was standing on my hips for five breaths (and, if I remember correctly, at the same time using her hands to bring my shoulders closer to the ground). Which probably looked a little bizarre to an observer, but it actually felt really good. Under the firm pressure of Kino's feet, I could feel my hips slowly but surely opening up like a durian being opened... uh, okay, I'm guessing this won't make any sense to you if you don't know what a durian is... well, slight digression here: A durian is a tropical fruit which looks like this:

It has a very distinctive smell which you will either love at first sight or despise for the rest of your life (for more details, see this post). Here is a visual illustration of how you open a durian and get to the delicious (or repugnant, depending on your tastes) flesh within:

Oh, what a cute dog ;-)
[Image taken from here]

Basically, you apply outward pressure steadily on the durian husks until it opens to reveal the creamy flesh within. Now imagine that Kino's feet are this guy's hands, and the durian husks are my hips, and she is applying steady outward pressure on my hips with her feet (or, more precisely, with the weight of her entire body, transmitted through her feet). Get the picture? Make sense?

Boy, I do ramble, don't I? :-) But as you can probably see, an assist like this requires considerable body-to-body contact in some places that our western society considers to be, rather, uh, intimate. So it is important that this assist is given by a teacher you trust and feel comfortable with. Oh, by the way, La Gitane recently wrote a very illuminating and helpful post on when/how to say no to assists or adjustments that you are not comfortable receiving. It's definitely worth a read.

Alright... that was a bit of blogging for one morning. More later.  


  1. Wow, the method for opening durian is a complete revelation to me. Not that it would reduce the need for a gas mask, but should I ever be forced to open a durian (with a gas mask) now I know how to do it. Which contributes to the theory that all you ever really have to do is study one thing (yoga) to learn everything (like how to open a durian). My dad was once on a plane that had to make an emergency landing because someone smelled gas on board. Turned out it was a smuggled durian (guess that's why they are banned on most Asian airlines).

    Thanks for the link!

    1. Yes, this is one of the great secrets of life: Master one thing (yoga) thoroughly, and everything else will open up like the husks of a durian, revealing the soft, creamy, and delicious (or repugnant) flesh within :-)

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