Kapotasana = death

In any physical endeavor, there will be a point at which linear progress is no longer possible.

When I ran marathons, I came to a point where I understood that I had already run the fastest I was ever going to run, at least at that distance. I also came to a point where I understood that I had already bested myself at every other distance in which I was interested in attempting. Progress was no longer possible, at least not with the level of work I was willing to put in (50 mile weeks seemed like plenty good enough, and running less didn’t seem like an option at the time, although looking back now, I wonder if I might have been able to beat my fastest time if I had tried “easier” instead of trying “harder”…hmmmm).

So it is with the shape of my body. I will never be tall. I will never be lanky. I will always be muscular and sturdy (reflecting my lineage of Russian peasant stock!). Even at my absolute skinniest, I have always been a mesomorph. I suppose that I could test the theory by simply dieting down to 90 pounds and seeing if I was tall and lanky yet. OK, well, at least short and lanky, assuming that is possible. But why would I do that? I like my weight. If I were any smaller, I would not be able to buy adult clothing.

When I began practicing yoga, I never really thought about the logical ending point for linear progress. I assumed, simply, that I would keep getting stronger, keep getting more flexible. Until what? I don’t know. Until I was able to spontaneously levitate? I don’t know. As I said, I never really thought about it. I just kept at it.

When I discovered the wacky-cool poses of the Ashtanga Primary Series, I knew that I wanted to “conquer” them. And I knew that the only way I was going to do that was to go to a Mysore-style yoga shala and get individualized assistance on each pose that posed a challenge. My goal was to complete the Primary Series, unassisted.

I checked that one off the list of Things To Do Before I Die about two years ago. Not too long afterward, some new poses were taught to me. These poses are part of the Intermediate Series.

(As an aside, I would like to add that the names “Primary” and “Intermediate” are serious misnomers, given that the Primary Series includes at least six poses which are anything but elementary in nature, which the name “Primary” would seem to imply, and given that one of the most difficult backbends of which the body is capable is included smack in the middle of “Intermediate” Series.)

These new poses were fairly easy for me to learn, and much easier than many of the poses in Primary Series, several of which took me 12 to 15 months to learn. And then I got to Kapotasana, the ninth pose in the Intermediate Series (Stand on your shins, bend backwards and touch your feet with your hands: Ninth Circle of Hell, anyone?) Suddenly, I was completely incapable of progress. Sure, I could get into the pose if someone assisted me into it. And by assisted, I mean practically ripping my arms out of their sockets. Or having two assistants, one at my legs and one at my arms, simultaneously pulling my legs in the opposite direction from my torso and arms. But all of that was so traumatic for me that I began requesting that my teacher to NOT help me into the pose anymore. And I began not showing up in class at all. And after more than a year of backing off, I still shudder to think about the ripping feeling in my triceps.

At home, in my self-practice, I began to stop before Kapotasana. I would practice right up to it, and then stop right there. Or kind of go into the pose, but limply, with no effort.

Not long ago, I realized that, to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, what I’ve got here is a “dead shark”. For me, my yoga practice has always seemed to be a “shark” – needing to move forward. And when it stops moving forward, that’s death. A marathon runner would call it “hitting the wall”, except that most marathon runners can muster up the energy to “push through” the wall (if that were not true, the Willis Avenue Bridge would be known by runners as “the saddest place in Manhattan”).

As anyone who has been reading me can guess, this is a very very bitter pill for me to swallow. It is sad and painful and disturbing and disheartening to know that I have gone as far as I am ever going to go in backbends. Ever. Finito. OK, so fine. I’ve also gone as far as I am ever going to go in lawyering, in baby-making, in French cooking. So then why is hitting THIS wall so painful for me? Why is it making me cranky and bitter and sad?

The answer occurred to me yesterday as I wound up my self-practice, alone in the peaceful yoga room I installed in my house this summer, with lilac walls and French doors looking out onto the garden. In my stretched-out, sweated-out, blissed-out, post-yoga head zone, the answer smacked me in the face so hard that it literally brought tears to my eyes:

Fear of death.

Fear of death!

I had a teacher a long time ago, really a teacher’s assistant, but still a teacher to me, who would say “Fear of death” matter of factly, whenever I would express my fear of getting assisted into one particularly scary pose (Prasarita Padotanasana C, the forward bend with legs straddled and hands clasped behind the back, where the height of the pose occurs when the hands end up on the floor behind the head). And I got it. But somehow I forgot it in the four plus years since I last saw him.

Having hit the point where I can make no further physical progress in backbends, I come face-to-face with my mortality. Like, this is as good as it’s ever going to get, it’s all downhill from here, and after that, I die.

Strange really, given that I came to yoga as an affirmation of life after facing a life-threatening illness, the treatment of which was essentially cell-murder, good cells, bad cells, indiscriminately. Perhaps I feel betrayed by a system that seemed so life affirming, but is now insistently (nay, cruelly!) reminding me of my limitations as a mortal, reminding me that you start out young and innocent and full of hope, and then at a certain point you realize that you have achieved everything that you are ever going to achieve.

Then what?

I suppose that I can find a new physical endeavor that will challenge me and fill me with the false sense of hope of endless self-improvement (read: immortality). Or I suppose I can face my limitations (read: aging) with grace.

If only there were an injectable for this.



19 Responses to Kapotasana = death

  1. patrick says:

    I like this. Someone–I think it was either Swenson or SKPJ–said, “there is a pose that breaks everyone!”. Harsh vocabulary, perhaps, in “breaks,” but I think the point is very much that there’s a wall for everyone in the world of asana. I’m sure there’s wisdom to be found in finding the wall, wherever it is set, but I’ve not yet scaled enough of my own asana walls to be able to state that wisdom clearly.

  2. lauren says:

    I think that “breaks” is an appropriately harsh word for this phenomenon. It is, not to sound too maudlin, hearbreaking. And I was very much thinking of you as I wrote this…not because I think you have reached your breaking point but because I was trying to talk about this in a comment on karen’s blog in which I addressed your kapotasana journey, but she deleted it. So I am glad you read this!

  3. N says:

    Another possibility: Rather than reminding you of your own mortality, perhaps kapo is just forcing you to stop and savor the experience of where you are now (as opposed to the experience of trying to get somewhere else). It’s a pretty good place, no?


  4. yogachickie says:

    Ah, standing still. Isn’t that what yoga is supposed to teach us? Is the yoga to be found at the end of the linear progression?! Is it intended that way? Or is that solely my experience? All I know is that staying here, continuing round and round on this cul-de-sac (I won’t say dead end, ok?) is hard! Harder than bagging yoga and taking up, say, Judo or Aikido! Or women’s soccer club, or something along those lines…by which I mean utterly new and without any baggage, with a steep learning curve to distract me and help me avoid the dreaded “sitting still”. Cue: REM’s “Sitting Still”…

  5. N says:

    Or “Stand (in the place where you are)”? 😉

    Yeah, the whole business of standing still seems like the most challenging practice of all.

    Bon courage!

  6. bindifry says:

    why not do kapo without pushing & just move on from there? the rest of the series is pretty fun imo (except karanda-but i don’t really try hard on that one since i pretty much have made peace with my unstable pelvis)

  7. d says:

    funny you mention prasarita C, my friend was f’d up big time at a ny shala by an adjustment in that pose. the teacher pushed her head to the floor (first time!) and ended up dislocating a cervical vertebra. was the ‘pana’ worth it? ouch.

  8. LI Ashtangini says:

    Krav Maga?

  9. Floss says:

    I found your post interesting because I am just hitting my personal wall in the first leg behind head pose. My teacher tells me that because of my race/genetics/shape of pelvis, it is not surprisig that I have a hard time with this pose. When I first tried it I thought it’d take me years to be able to keep the leg behind my head. Now I am beginning to think ( after trying it for 2 months ) I will never be able to do it.

    Am I devastated ? Not really. I am happy practising up to this point. My low back pain has completely disappeared with my primary – and second – to eka pada practice. And my headspace needs the practice.

    I guess my goal with the yoga was never linear progression. I just want to be healthy in body and mind, and have a sustainable ‘balm’ that I can call on for the rest of my life.

    I think in your situation the kopotasana ‘wall’ is good in that it makes you examine what you really want out of this practice.

  10. yogachickie says:

    Bindi…YES. I want to. I am struggling to allow myself. Linear progression is an impediment in my head only. I know that!

  11. yogachickie says:

    Floss, do you mind if I ask you what your race/genetics/shape of pelvis issue is? Can you do Yoga Nidrasana and Supta Kurmasana? I find this interesting…

  12. Floss says:

    Hello YC,

    I am of oriental stock. I have a narrow pelvis. I guess you would call me slim with a little pot belly. I do my supta kurmasana with my ankles half-crossed in front of my head ( partly because of previous ankle injuries ). My teacher can adjust my ankles to behind my head. I cannot enter via dwi pada. I cannot do yoga nidrasana ( not that I have seriously tried to do it ). I don’t think it’s my hip flexibility, I can badda konasana for hours if I want. My teacher told me that he found oriental females have the most difficult time with the LBH stuff.

  13. yogachickie says:

    Interesting! My pelvis is narrow too, and my ribcage is wide in relation to it, I thought perhaps from two humongous pregnancies, but perhaps, now that you mention it, from my heritage (family came from Russia, among other places, and there are some in my family who have some Asian-esque features). On the other hand,I do not have broad shoulders. SO….this could make it harder for me to keep a leg behind my head than for someone whose pelvis is wider than their ribcage and whose shoulders form a nice, wide shelf. I am able to get my legs behind my head at this point, but keeping them there is a difficult thing. Still, I don’t feel like it’s impossible…yet. I think that if I could develop enough softness, as opposed to springiness, in the soft tissue around my hip joints, I’ll be fine in Eka Pada. Not so much Kapotasana…!

  14. bindifry says:

    yes. floss is correct. genetics makes a difference in the ability for certain bodies to struggle with certain things. i learned a lot about this from teaching overseas. there’s also psychological reasons that can be related to genetics/upbringing/pregnancy/severe illness/depression….
    or cultural. for instance, many japanese people had a harder time than you doing less. when many i have taught were far better off pulling back. many tend to ignore pain, because it’s a sign of “weakness.”

    there’s much liberation in accepting limitations. what happens is that the mind becomes free of struggle. and finally peace has room to grow first in the body, then in the mind.

  15. Traveling yogini says:

    I think bindifry makes some really good points.

  16. […] Kapotasana = death « Yoga Chickie […]

  17. Monica says:

    What a beautiful post. I am so moved. I think you are wonderful. I think you will get kapotasana. I think you will die. I think you will also live forever.

  18. Monica says:

    and by die I mean in bed many many years from now after a continued wonderful existence in this life.

  19. yogachickie says:

    I knew you didn’t mean anything horrifying, Monica! But thanks for clarifying!

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