Backbending often brings up strong emotions when students first begin to practice it more regularly and go deeper.
It often does not really matter whether you are flexible or stiff in your spine if you are unfamiliar with the strength, stamina and flexibility needed for most backbending movements. It takes lots of practice before you will feel confident about integrating a full backbend sequence into your daily practice. Healthy technique and anatomical awareness is crucial to the long term practice of backbends. Be aware that when learning how to safely bend your back you may experience rational and irrational emotions. Sometimes the most flexible students have the most troubling emotions arising when they start practicing backbends.
When I first started Ashtanga Yoga, I was more naturally flexible than strong. That does not mean that it was easy for me to do deep backbends. I remember learning how to stand up and drop back from Urdhva Dhanurasana and hitting my head on the floor, losing my grounding in my feet and feeling so disoriented that I wondered if my body would ever “un-bend” itself again.
Then after I finally learned to stand up and down from backbend and eventually go even deeper I experienced a variety of strong emotions that ranged from irritation to intense sadness on a daily basis. A student of mine here in Miami recently told me that she hit her head one afternoon while trying to drop back into Urdha Dhanurasana and was now afraid of trying on her own.
We did the movement together and we will continue to work on it until she builds the strength, flexibility and confidence to try again on her own. If you hit your head the most important thing to do is to try again right away either on own or with the help of a teacher so do not build aversion to the movement.
One of the deepest lessons in the yoga practice is about bringing the energy up the spine and cleansing the nervous system. Backbends thrust your full life force up through this central channel and burn through blockages along the way. When one of these blockages gets triggered it really does not matter whether you are doing a deep backbend or a beginner backbend because the emotional state that gets triggered is really of paramount importance.
When things are difficult, scary and emotional it is hard to remain calm, breathe and think clearly.
This is where the guidance of an experienced teacher is crucial. They can support your process, direct your body with sound instruction and finally give the process back over to you when you’re ready.
One of the most intense series of backbends occurs in the Ashtanga Yoga Second Series. Two of the most confusing and challenging postures in this series are Dhanurasana and Parvsa Dhanurasana. When working on Dhanurasana and Parvsa Dhanurasana in the Ashtanga Yoga Second Series it is important to remember healthy alignment principles of backbending and to take your time with the movements. While at first they might seem easy these two postures ideally set up the strength and flexibility in the back to be able to move into the deeper backbends that immediately follow.
In Dhanurasana, the upward thrust of the bow, is ideally created by an equal pull forward with the arms and a reach back and up with the legs. The two forces counterbalance each other and create the space between the vertebrae that healthfully allows deep backbends. If you favor either pulling with the arms or reaching with the legs then it also probably indicates that you favor bending your either your upper back or your lower back.
In all backbends the notion is to equally distribute the bend throughout the entire spine, lifting the energy from the base of the spine all the way through each joint until it reaches the top of the head. The lower stomach stays drawn-in to support the spine. Especially in Dhanurasana if you breathe through your belly you will notice your body bouncing up and down.
In Parsva Dhanurasana, the bow of the backbend is placed on the side. Many students are confused about what to do in this posture, how to hold their spine or where to gaze. The gazing point is at the third eye and the neck is ideally held in alignment with the spine. Starting off by lying on the right side place the right edge of the body fully on the ground so that you feel the right side of the pelvis, the right rib cage and the right deltoid on the floor. Then lift your feet away from your pelvis and engage the arms. This movement targets stretching and opening the shoulder that is on the ground and the iliopsoas on the opposite side of the body than is placed on the ground. But be conscious that this lengthening movement only comes when you fully extend your spine into a deep bow.
Whether you feel anxiety, sadness, angst or physical pain when practicing backbends regularly the key is to learn how to stay with the difficult places and work through them.
In a workshop that I recently taught in Austin, Texas, a naturally very flexible student was struggling with standing up and down in Urdhva Dhanurasana. She shared her experience of the emotional journey into backbending on her blog. The natural tendency is just to run away when things get tough, but the practice of Ashtanga Yoga teaches you how to find your way gracefully through whatever obstacles may arise in your life experience. It just might be a bumpy ride for a little while. Your job is to stay the course and use sound anatomical alignment, deep breathing, and a courageous heart to follow the path.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.