Saturday, December 22, 2012

Strength and Softness in Kapotasana

I have several students both in my Mysore room and my vinyasa classes who are ready and working towards Kapotasana. It's a difficult posture to teach in a class setting, since, at least for me, I can't demonstrate in the context of the class to show them what I'm talking about. So I decided to make a little video that was taken during my home practice.

This is a big pose. Of course you need a good level of flexibility in your shoulders, hip flexors, and spine to start approaching it safely. But I often find, that the biggest hurdle is  a lack of strength or a lack of understanding that strength is required in a deep backbend. It seems that once we drop back from the kneeling position, we get disoriented, adrenaline from the freshly squeezed kidneys rushes in, and we lose our composure. Our low back crunches, we feel like we're going to die, we forget to breathe let alone think about our hips and legs working, and we drop the head to the floor and barely touch our toes. We take a few labored breaths, and then struggle to find our legs and wake our hips to bring us back up, hoping that the teacher is nearby and can help.

Yes, I've been there, complete with panic attacks as I approached this pose in the sequence. The desire to run away from my mat has never been so strong as when I've approached this particular backbend. The aluminum taste of adrenaline is a real sensation; it's hard to not react.

What has made a big difference for me has been doing most of the work from standing on the knees. Waking up the feet so the pinkie toes are pushing into the earth, shin bones pressing down, low back lengthening and pelvic floor and low belly lifting. In standing on the knees, we root and we energetically climb up the spine until the upper back is awakened, bottom tips of the shoulder blades pressing in to open the chest. We take a deep inhale to set the bandhas, compose ourselves, and stay strong with the hips in a forward motion as we bring the hands to the floor. Here, instead of dropping the head and essentially ending the work of strengthening the hips and opening the upper back , we breathe and stay connected to the hips and the legs so the spine can open safely as we walk the hands to the feet. Every breath is an opportunity to lengthen and to reground through the foundation. When we've gone far enough for our body, eventually perhaps to the heels, instead of giving up the strength work, we push the hips forward with a big inhale and try to straighten the arms (it may or may not happen, but that's the energetic feeling), and then with maximum spaciousness we exhale the head down. At this point, if you've set yourself up properly, it feels good to be in the posture; it feels spacious and open, not collapsed and resigned. We keep softness along the spine and at the same time work to keep the hips and legs strong so they can bring us back up.

The beauty of kapotasana, and perhaps why it can be so daunting at times, is that strength has to be present along with softness. The strength is more than just the physical strength of your hips, but an internal strength that sees the fear and instead of reacting to it, chooses to take another breath and create space. It's the type of strength that one can rely on; the kind of strength that supports and inspires growth. The softness is more than just boundless bendiness; it's a conscious willingness to open in the face of vulnerability, not out of blind faith, but with the knowledge that the foundation is there to support you. This is a posture that teaches us courage and uses the tangible physical body to teach us about relationships. It is no wonder that it makes some of us want to run. 

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