02/11/08 Chakrasana: You Take Ankles
Taking the ankles. If you’ve practiced in the shala in Mysore, you know it, possibly you dread it. The Wheel. The closed circuit backbend. It’s like a Kapotasana standing up. You walk in from Urdhva Danurasana (the backbend with hands and feet on the ground to create an upward facing bow) until your feel touch your ankles and then, usually with help from Sharath or Saraswati, you take the ankles. To avoid the shoulders going out to the sides, its best to go into the pose from drop backs. Sharath grounds your hips and you go back as far as you can, keeping the elbows in. He takes your wrists, very gently, one at a time, and brings them to your ankles. Then, if you are ready, he walks your hands each up the back of the leg. A few inches, eventually the hands are above the knees (I’m working mid-calf these days). At the point of getting to the ankles, I was thinking what the hell am I doing this for? WHY is Chakrasana so important here? Rather than surrender to the pose without question, I have been trying to understand it.
The pose does require surrender, at the same time strength. Surrender comes in when the teacher is taking your arms back. It’s the deepest backbend of the day and it hurts until you press into your legs, straighten out, and join in the breathing fun. The first day Saraswati walked my hands even furthur up my legs, I thought surely she wants to hurt me. Which is ridiculous. But in the moment, anything goes inside the mind. I’ve had three cracks in the pose. They keep moving up the spine. This week I cracked up between the shoulder blades. Exciting to get some movement up there.
It took a month for me to get beyond the point of complete angst inside the pose. There is a feeling of having no control, the breath gets shallow and fast, in the shala there is a lot of grunting going on. I figure if I can’t breathe freely in the pose, I shouldn’t be doing it. However, I had an intuition here that this pose has something important for me. It is one of those poses that Sharath and Saraswati are intense on adjusting. You wait for backbends, and if you try to escape, often he will call you back. Not everyone of course, only intermediate practitioners who are ready for it. Why so important? Is it the connection of hands to ankles? Deep bending of the spine?
I keep talking to others abot their experience in the pose. It seems to bring up fear and resistance. Probably because it hurts, and because we aren’t sure what the pose is about. Sharath taught me last week to press the hips forward, and suddenly, his hands were gone and I was standing on my own in the pose. He said “very good” and the light bulb went on for me. I knew he was looking for something in the pose from me- that’s it, to stand freely. It’s scary. It requires total presence of mind, comfort in the pose, and strong breathing. There’s no way I can calmly stand there in this backbend if I am freaking out in any way.
I conjecture that presence of mind in an extreme backbend is an indicator of a strong nervous system. Therefore, the pose is one of those points we reach that signal to Sharath we are getting somewhere in particular. I’m not sure exactly where that might be, but I trust that he understands the process and he watching all of us, seeing these signals along the path. I completely trust him in this way, and I enjoy learning to understand the system through the experience. It’s the only way to manage so many students, to have set signals to watch for. In this system there are certain poses which are turning points. For example, Utthita Hasta in standing poses tells us when the hamstrings are opening, which is necessary for the primary series. Mareechasana tells us lotus is coming, and the digestion is clearing. As a Mysore style teacher, I tend to get sucked into particulars of my students bodies, but really it’s a big picture, this Ashtanga yoga. What an interesting way to learn all this, by taking the ankles.