Lessons from Kapotasana
If there is one asana, of all the common and well-known asanas, that arouses fear and anxiety it is Kapotasana (the pigeon pose). It comes in the second series of the Ashtanga yoga tradition and is arguably the most difficult pose in this series which sometimes makes one wonder why it was not placed in the third series. It is also called the Poorna Ustrasana (Full Camel) in other traditions of asana practice since it is reminiscent of the hump on a camel's back.
For the naturally flexible and for those whose backs are not stiff due sitting at a desk for long periods of time, this pose may not be difficult but for the vast majority of us, especially those of us with sedentary jobs, doing the pose in its entirety, requires a lot of skill mentally and physically with the right coordination of effort and relaxation. While I am not a yoga expert in terms of physiology, I aim to provide some pointers on a few techniques and some life lessons I gleaned while doing this pose.
The renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher, Kino Macgregor, describes doing Kapotasana as putting your finger into an electrical socket in this video. She describes the upsurge of energy through the spine in another video. She says that people feel various emotions when entering this pose. Back bends are naturally uncomfortable for the body due to a sense of disorientation it causes. This, along with the extreme twist of the spine, surfaces a lot of deep seated emotions that are hidden in the body. That is the reason some people feel tears streaming down their face after entering the pose for the first time or after a long pause.
I have been doing the full version of Kapotasana for over an year (though only a couple of times a week) and had to pay a lot of attention to the mind to come to some sort of ease while entering this pose and not be overcome with anxiety. It still remains the most difficult pose of all the asanas that I do.
The mental state
Because of the natural fear from being disoriented in backbends and crawling your hands toward the heels, while it is slipping on the yoga mat, the first thing that happens is that one stops breathing. Because of this muscles clench causing even more fear, creating a vicious positive feedback cycle.
The technique and the anchor
It was Tim Feldmann, another renowned yoga teacher, who told me the importance of pressing the feet (especially the big toe) onto the ground very firmly while entering this pose. It seemed like a chore to do this, at first, due to already having to deal with the host of aforementioned problems but as my body gradually opened up, this became the most natural thing to do. When the big toe is pressed hard on the ground there is a feeling of an upsurge of Prana(life force or energy) stemming from the toe and going all the way through the chest and sinking into the heels through the hands as shown in the picture below. This creates a feeling of malleability making the body more flexible. A flexible body relaxes and the breathing is not compromised any longer. It also creates an anchor preventing panic when the hands slip on the yoga mat while moving toward the heels.
This anchor that is brought about by pressing the toes onto the ground in Kapotasana, can teach us a few life lessons. When things go awry in life creating a sense of panic, say after a medical diagnosis or a job loss, it is important to have an anchor in our life that creates stability and not let the mind be thrown about like a ship in a tempest. This can be something simple - taking care of our children and the understanding that investing quality time with them is a great investment, physical exercise like running that gives us the mental strength and conviction that we are not weak and can surmount obstacles or even simple relaxing tasks like gardening if it can prevent the mind from being jostled. These are some lessons that this pose can offer us upon reflection on it.
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