This asana is simultaneously an asymmetrical backbend and a balancing posture, which means that to practice it while maintaining space in the spine, safety in the knees, and stability in the standing leg is a big challenge… let alone while remembering to breathe at the same time!
The name ‘chapasana’ refers to ‘sugarcane’ but a lot of mythological origins link it to Shiva’s bow and arrow, of which the bow was made of sugarcane. If you look at the asana, you’ll notice that one half of the body is in the position of Dhanurasana (bow pose), which in itself represents Shiva’s bow (the body being the handle, and the arms being the string).
Any balancing posture requires the ability to focus, while at the same time letting go of needing to do things ‘perfectly’. Falling out of a posture often brings up feelings of ‘I’m not good enough’, and we often grip parts of the body in fear of falling and embarrassing ourselves in front of others in class. As we’ll learn though, fear is something that comes up in almost every situation, and part of our practice is overcoming unnecessary fear and choosing to move to a place of courage and love instead….
I recently attended another workshop with the wonderful Kathryn Budig, who is such a creative and inspiring teacher, and certainly knows the art of teaching a challenging yet completely upllifting, fun class. A big topic in her workshop was about releasing fear and choosing love in each situation, which you may be familiar with if you’ve read any of Marianne Williamson’s work:
“Love is what we were born with,
Fear is what we learned here”
– Marianne Williamson
This is something we can definitely all benefit from practicing both on and off the mat, and it’s an uncompromising way of observing our behaviour and our actions, and becoming more aware of why we do the things we do, and whether they’re actually helping us live full, happy lives.
There are basically only two places to act from: A place of love, or a place of fear. When we’re anxious, angry, upset, completely ego-driven, selfish, violent, sad, or self-conscious, it all essentially stems from being fearful. Emotions and feelings such as happiness, joy, feeling safe and grounded, generosity, courage, selflessness, and confidence all come from the opposite direction: Love. I’m not talking about ‘love’ in a cheesy, ‘fluffy’ way, I mean love as in pure goodness, love as in having the courage to be yourself and the ability to stay true to yourself.
Of course, being able to see fear and love in every situation is difficult; but it crops up in every decision we make throughout the day, and every action is in essence a conscious or unconscious decision of some sort….
On the mat, notice:
Do you push yourself beyond healthy boundaries in your practice because you’re scared of not being ‘good enough’ if you can’t attain a posture this time around, or if you don’t keep moving through vinyasa after vinyasa? Pushing beyond what we know is actually good for us in the determination to have an ‘advanced’ practice isn’t ‘advanced’ at all. What’s ‘advanced’ is having a connection and a relationship with yourself which means you can listen and respect what your body needs at that very moment in time (which might mean resting in child’s pose for half the class sometimes). The word yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to connect’, not to pull ourselves apart in the hope of attaining an impressive-looking posture…..
So let go of fear, let go of perfectionism, and move towards this challenging asana with love, trust, and the mantra ‘yes I can’ instead!
No matter how many times you fall over…………….
To prepare the body:
Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose) and become aware of the feet. Balancing postures require a sense of grounding and stability, which comes when we’re able to cultivate an even weight through each part of the foot. Many of us have a tendency to pronate or supinate the feet slightly, which can cause a whole host of other problems for the body (such as knee, hip and back pain), and it’s also likely to interfere with how challenging we find balancing on one foot. (click here for another post all about the importance of healthy feet).
Practice pada bandha (or, the ‘foot lock’) by pressing down into the heel, base of the little toe, and base of the big toe alternately. This will help to wake up the arches of the feet, so that the muscles of the foot are able to communicate more efficiently with the rest of the body while balancing. We can all feel that balancing isn’t about being ‘still’ at all; it’s a constant shifting of weight, and a re-configuring of all of the different muscles at once.
Being aware of the body as it moves through space is generally very important for developing a physically stronger and more fluid practice, as this helps us to refine smaller details of each posture in order to find a way of practicing that serves your own unique body.
From Tadasana, move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A, staying in bhujangasana or ‘cobra’ a little longer than usual in order to prepare the body for further backbending, and a few rounds of surya namaskar B.
From there, return to Tadasana, and continue to strengthen and awaken the legs a little by separating the feet hip-distance apart and practicing a wide-footed version of utkatasana. I personally prefer this variation as the alignment of hips, knees and ankles feels more stable and healthier for the lower body. Practice dynamically, or hold for 5 breaths in stillness to really wake up the leg muscles!
The next time you return to virabhadrasana 2, make your way into Trikonasana (triangle pose) and hold for 5-10 breaths. The action of maintaining an open chest and front body is much more important than how low the bottom hand reaches, so concentrate on maintaining openness here.
To finish with, make your way back to Tadasana, and then come down to the floor to practice THIS backbending preparation posture. This variation is especially important in understanding the unhelpful habits your body is likely to fall into when in the backbend aspect of chapasana, and the actions which can help to counteract them and move towards a strong yet spacious posture.
Rest when you’re done, and then return to Tadasana.
- From Tadasana, again become aware of the feet, feeling the weight shifting between them and spreading the toes evenly.
- Step the feet wide apart to Virabhadrasana 2, with the [right] leg forward.
- Exhale to bring the front hand down to the outside of the front foot. If the hand doesn’t comfortably make it to the floor, use a block or brick to rest the hand on and find stability first.
- Bring your top hand to the top hip, and start to cultivate an open chest just as you did in trikonasana. It’s very common to rush into the asana with the chest hunched and very wobbly feet, so practice taking things one-step-at-a-time and moving into the asana with mindfulness.
- Spread the toes of the front foot, and shift the weight into that foot.
- As you inhale, lift the back leg up so that the inner thigh and inner arch of the foot are parallel with the floor. Flex the back foot and press out firmly through the heel – as though you were standing on it. This will help you feel the whole body as part of the posture, and will help draw energy in towards your center of gravity.
- Find your stability first, (or as Daniel Scott says; “foundation before decoration!”) observe how the breath is – whether it’s shallow or full, and when you can maintain an even, steady flow of breath, then move on.
- Keep the chest open, and raise the top hand up towards the sky, taking the gaze either up to that hand, or down to the floor depending on any neck pain or balancing issues.
- OK, so here you’re practicing Ardha Chandrasana (half moon pose, which is more than enough for many people). If you want to move further into the full chapasana, then bend the top leg, and reach to hold the foot or ankle with the top hand.
- Once you’re holding the foot or ankle, check back in with the breath….
- Press the foot into the hand, and begin to open the
- front of the body, so you cultivate a backbend, much like in the backbending preparation posture. Notice if any of the unhelpful actions mentioned in the last piece I posted are happening: are you compressing the back of the neck or the lower back? Are you gritting the jaw? Are you holding your breath?
- Un-do any unnecessary tension, and hold the asana for 5-10 breaths, or however long feels right .
- To transition out, exhale and slowly release the top foot back into the position of Ardha Chandrasana, re-find your stability, and then exhale again to gently bring the top foot down to the floor.
- Make your way back into Virabhadrasana 1, and then step the feet together into Tadasana.
- Take a few moments to become aware of sensations in the body and mind before moving onto the other side.
- To counterpose this asana, make your way into adho mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) to create space and length in the spine, and then bring the knees to the floor and rest in balasana (child’s pose).
- From child’s pose, sit on the heels (or reach the legs out in front if this isn’t appropriate due to pain or knee issues), and practice a very gentle twist to each side of the body to neutralise the spine.
- Finish with a very gentle version of paschimottanasana to lengthen the muscles of the leg after strengthening them, and to re-balance the nervous system in the relaxing (‘relaxing’ for some, although I know for others this is definitely a nemesis pose) forward fold.
Each situation holds the opportunity to choose between love and fear, and each time we choose love, we move closer towards freedom….