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The Expectation of an Easy Asana

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In a previous post, I wrote at length about how to approach kapotasana, a difficult backbend from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.

On the Sunday that this video was taken, I was tired, my body was stiff and the asanas were very challenging. It led me to think a little after practice about what it means to be “comfortable” and “consistent” in an asana, especially in one that is difficult and brings up a lot of physical, mental and/or emotional triggers. It also got me to thinking about how we can deceive ourselves into equating ease in an asana with the elimination of physical sensation.

After having practiced for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many asanas become easier as my body changed in the sense that I don’t have as much negative physical sensation as when I started. I have also, however, accepted that some asanas might always be difficult. Having proficiency or even mastery of a posture does not mean that there will be an absence of physical sensations, thoughts or feelings which may not be positive. When students have asked me whether such and such asana will ever be “easy”, I say that it might still be physically challenging but it will be easier because it won’t cause the mental and emotions stress that it once did. “Easy” does not imply an absence of sensations. After all, we have central nervous systems so not feeling isn’t an option in this world.

So, how do we find comfort and consistency?
We can find comfort in an asana by learning to use only as much energy as necessary. If we use too much effort, it adds stress to the body and restlessness to the mind (chitta). It’s no coincidence that Sharath will say to relax when he’s giving someone a deep backbend. If we can relax, even a little, the asana becomes more comfortable.  For each individual in each asana, there is an optimal energy level that achieves “comfort” in the pose. Like I suggested above, comfort is not an absence of sensations or thoughts, it is the ability to hold the pose without generating stress despite the existence of strong sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The optimal amount of energy used in an asana is facilitated through correct regulated breathing. Over time, proper breathing also works to stabilize and strengthen the mind. Unregulated breathing makes the mind unsteady and increases any difficulties we have in challenging asanas. Activated bandhas and focussed dristhi are equally important to reduce strain and effort in difficult asanas.

Consistency comes slowly over time as we learn to manage the levels of sensation we are experiencing without panic, judgement or commentary. We gain a level of equanimity from doing an asana repeatedly and learning to breath correctly. Ultimately, we learn to trust that we can do an asana despite the strong sensations. We also internalize that we can do an asana despite how we are feeling (energetic vs tired) or despite the weather (January polar vortex vs July heat wave) or any of a myriad reasons that our minds get agitated.

Some practices will be harder than others for any number of reasons but we can still do difficult asanas if we use our breath, bandhas and drishti to minimize effort and strain and to keep the mind focussed.

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Mayurasana Video

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A challenging asana from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.

It’s even more difficult with wrists that don’t bend. 🙂

My Comment to The Indifferent Ashtangi by Jason Stein

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I shared the link to Jason Stein’s well-written blog post, The Indifferent Ashtangi. I thought I would also share the comment I left.

I am so glad to see Jason’s insights being shared with the greater Ashtanga community. They are too astute to be buried amongst the comments of my blog.

I couldn’t agree more that students need to be taught that practice is not just about asanas, adjustments and the myths of progress and completion. Students cannot be blamed if they get caught up in the physical dynamism of Ashtanga yoga and wrongly confuse the ends with the means. This is particularly true if instructors are not sharing the deeper elements of the practice.

Ultimately, the onus is on teachers to take the time and instill proper values in students. It is more work and more tedious than simply walking the room and giving adjustments.

There are many reasons why a teacher might over-emphasize the asanas – to be popular, to run a successful business, to pad their egos by having “advanced” students or just because they don’t have the depth of understanding themselves.

I differ with you on one point. I have observed the honeymoon or romance phase of practice to occur before the obsessive phase. When students are first leaning and they are being given new asanas regularly, they are quite content to go with the flow and just enjoy the positive experience of getting in touch with their bodies, focussing their minds, etc.

It is the experience of negative sensations – pain, frustration, judgement, fatigue – that first challenges students. It  is the first time they have to ask why they are practicing. It is at this moment that students leave the honeymoon/romance phase of practice. Once the initial shine of practice is gone, once they realize that the asanas, in and of themselves, are not an express train to samadhi, the student may start obsessing in the ways I described.

I look forward to more posts from you. I value your opinions and think they are a much needed service to the community.

The Indifferent Ashtangi by Jason Stein

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The Indifferent Ashtangi, A blog post written by my friend, Jason Stein, that began as a comment to my post The Obsessing Ashtangi.

Excellent insights from a long-time student and teacher of Ashtanga yoga.

I look forward to more posts from him.

Reasons Your Ashtanga Teacher May Not Be Giving You More Poses

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A repost of a nice article by Shanna Small that sheds light on why students don’t always get more asanas in Ashtanga Yoga.

Debunking Alignment Obsession in Yoga

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A repost of a nice article by Maya Devi Georg that was posted on Yoganonymous that I wanted to share and to save for posterity.

6 Reasons You Should Stop Obsessing Over Alignment in Yoga Class.

Kapotasana – Question Answered

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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!

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