I received a question asking for tips on kapotasana from Ashtanga’s intermediate series. Ah, kapotasana… one of the great hurdles in Ashtanga Yoga. As such, it is also one of the great opportunities for growth and self-awareness.  Here are some tips.

A caveat, however. Learning an asana like this is best done under the guidance of a qualified teacher. It’s important to develop good habits and to have the teacher’s support when things get intense.

My first piece of advice is to have patience. It can take a long, long time to get a handle on this asana and an even longer time before it feels comfortable. I’ve seen too many people get frustrated when they felt their backs weren’t opening quick enough. I’ve seen people get injured by overworking the pose, doing it too many times, doing extra-curricular stretching, etc. I’ve seen others, including myself, assume crazy diets in the hope it would “open things up.” Some things take time and other things take a long time. If you’re back is stiff and this asana is difficult, observe how your mind and emotions are reacting to the process of learning the asana.  Use the difficulty and the process of learning to develop the softer virtues of practice such as faith, patience and trust. Focus on breathing, use your bandhas, be patient and practice as if you had all the time in the world.

While the asana is a deep backbend, the importance of strong, active legs is often overlooked. In the two preceding asanas of intermediate series, ustrasna and laghuvajrasana, make sure that you are using your legs as much as possible. In ustrasana, push your hips forward as much as possible. Hold your heels as if they are the only thing keeping you from falling forward – that’s how much you need to be using your legs. The same is true for laghuvajrasana. Keep pushing the hips forward while you’re counting your five breaths and don’t allow your waist to bend or your seat to sink towards the floor. If you can work your legs in these two preceding asanas, it will pay dividends when engaged in the long walk of your hands to your heels in kapotasana.

When it’s time to do kapotasana, make sure your hands, feet and knees are dry. The last thing you need is to be slipping on your yoga mat or rug. Before arching back, take a long inhale and push your hips forward. Feel your shins and feet pressing into your mat. This provides some structure and leverage as the back arches and the arms reach towards the floor/feet.

When arching your back and reaching, don’t be in a  hurry to straighten your arms. Most of us get locked in the shoulders if we straighten our arms too soon. If the arms stay bent and the hands kept in prayer position near the forehead, a deeper arch is possible than trying to go back with straight arms. Keep arching the back, keep pushing the hips forward, keep the eyes open and KEEP BREATHING.

When the hands reach the floor, resist the temptation to put the head on the floor. If your head touches down, it’s just more work to lift it up and walk in the hands.

The following comes direct from Sharath. To walk the hands towards the feet and heels, take an inhale and first straighten the arms, push the hips forward and arch the back. On the exhale, walk the hands in letting the arms bend some but without touching the head to the floor. Repeat to get closer and closer. Since it may require several breaths to walk in to your maximum, it’s really important to keep breathing and use your bandhas.

Things are going to get intense and the tendency is for the breath to get short. There is no outside help that will keep you breathing. You have to make yourself keep breathing. When you feel you’re at your limit, take five breaths letting the elbows come towards the floor and doing your best to keep them in parallel to your feet. (I’ve seen some students with their elbows swayed out to the side which isn’t desirable.)

The second part of the asana has the arms straighten and hold for another five breaths. Keep pushing the hips forward and feel the shins and feet pressing so the weight isn’t entirely going back into your arms. After five breaths, inhale come up slowly. Maintain your breath and bandhas as much as possible. I know you’ll be tired and feeling a lot of sensation, but it’s important to maintain the internal stability after such a strong backbend.

Students can try kapotasana up to three times if they have the energy and time. Any more than that can breed attachment and as Guruji would say, “is crazy making.”

One final suggestion. It’s important to learn how to walk in by yourself. If you are lucky enough to have a teacher, you should try to do the asana on your own at least once before getting help. While an instructor can help you get your hands closer than you might be able to do on your own, eventually, you want to be able to do the asana independently. Some instructors (I’m not going to name names) never encourage their students to learn to do this asana on their own. Unfortunately, it breeds a level of dependence that might be good for business but is not good for the student’s development.

You’re done until tomorrow!