The Emotional Journey of Backbending.

Via on Feb 24, 2012

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.

 

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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.

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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.

About Kino MacGregor

Kino MacGregor is one of a select group of people to receive the Certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga by its founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. The youngest woman to hold this title, she has completed the challenging Third Series and is now learning the Fourth Series. After seven years of consistent trips to Mysore, at the age of 29, she received from Guruji the Certification to teach Ashtanga yoga and has since worked to pass on the inspiration to practice to countless others. In 2006, she and her husband Tim Feldmann founded Miami Life Center, where they now teach daily classes, workshops and intensives together in addition to maintaining an international traveling and teaching schedule. She has produced three Ashtanga yoga DVDs (Kino MacGregor – A Journey, A Workshop; Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series; Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series), an Ashtanga yoga practice card and a podcast on yoga. Her next book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, is set to come out in the spring of 2013 from Shambhala Publications. As a life coach and Ph.D. student in holistic health with a Master’s Degree from New York University, Kino integrates her commitment to consciousness and empowerment with her yoga teaching. She has been featured in Yoga Journal, Yoga Mind Body Spirit, Yoga Joyful Living, Travel & Leisure Magazine, Ocean Drive Magazine, Boca Raton Magazine, Florida Travel & Life Magazine, Six Degrees Magazine as well as appearing on Miami Beach’s Plum TV and the CBS Today Show. Find her at: kinoyoga.com.

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22 Responses to “The Emotional Journey of Backbending.”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you so much, Kino!

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  2. globie says:

    I well remember a big head bang when trying to drop back on my own, C heard the crash and told me to do it again before I had the chance to think about it, though she did put a "just in case" blanket down!

  3. AKD says:

    Your DVDs and videos have been very helpful to me in my practice. I only wish that Ashtanga was taught so intelligently in Mysore. I just came back from my first ever trip and the teacher was aggressively pushing me to backbend deeper than I ever have straight from primary series. It seems the new gateway to 2nd is tiriang mukhottanasana. After some time back now I cannot practice without intense pain and needless to say I do not agree with how the practice is taught there.
    Anyway all that to say that your approach to teaching the practice is sound and every extra you teach to practice deeply yet safely is nothing but intelligent yoga teaching coming from a place of love. Thank you.

  4. angel r. says:

    Having experienced a succession of traumas over the past 6 years, one of the collateral casualties was my yoga practice. Even as I made my way back to the mat, backbends remained (and remain) impossible to re-attempt. It has less to do with my body than my lack of faith in the ground below me. When I lost certain loved ones, I also lost the belief that I was safe. Backbends inherently require faith in the strength of those supporting you, even if it’s just a floor. I do hope to get back – and back – but, yeah, there’s far more between us and our mats than air.

  5. Thaddeus1 says:

    "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."

    This is such a crucial thing to keep in mind as one works on his/her backbends. It is easy to get lulled into the idea that those who are "flexible" have a much easier time with their backbends. But to buy into this idea is to really miss what is occurring on the much more subtle and much more important levels. Thanks for this offering Kino.

    Posting to Elephant Ashtanga. Be sure to Like Elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.

  6. [...] The Emotional Journey of Backbending. [...]

  7. Andy says:

    Kino, as far as famous yoga teachers go, i think you are one of the good ones. I admire your focus and dedication on and to the practice.

  8. Sharon Marie says:

    my fear is falling on my head and hurting my neck, so i have been using the wall to walk one hand down the wall while the other hand gets to the floor for the drop backs and one hand on the wall and one hand reaching for the ceiling for the "back up agains". i would like to break away from the wall and build more trust in my legs somehow. thanks for this post, kino.

  9. [...] back bends are like black licorice–mostly people either love them or hate them. These poses might be [...]

  10. [...] yoga journey started six or seven years ago when I tried yoga for the first time at a local fitness club. My [...]

  11. Jenny says:

    Great post :)

    I discovered the power of backbends when I broke up with my boyfriend last year and went from a flexible spine to a spine that shuddered at the thought of urdha dhanurasana. I cried my way through backbends on most days for about 4 months!

    My challenge at the moment is standing up from urdha dhanurasana – I can’t seem to get my hands off the ground when I’m doing it by myself (super-glued to the floor with general confusion as to what’s up, down, back or front!).

  12. Pete says:

    What's with all the magazine & tv bio at the end??? Is that how I recognize a good yoga teacher?

  13. Deborah A. Smith says:

    I loved doing backbends from a standing position as a teenager. It felt good and it was not scary. I did not, however, continue doing backbends. I did my first "yoga" backbend (arching up from a supine position on the floor) after I turned 50. I was a little surprised that emotional reaction was manaical laughter as I hung upside down. I wonder what this means, ave I been losing out all these years?

  14. [...] the line they have gotten the idea that yoga can make our inner turmoil vanish, perhaps even that the purpose of yoga is to make the turmoil immediately dissipate. If you believe that yoga is meant to take you quickly [...]

  15. [...] how different is it from the diving board? Not all that different: I have the inversions, I have the backbends, now just put them together (or, in other words: [...]

  16. [...] literally turn your perspective on the world upside down, then a handstand is just a handstand. But if you are willing to let the process challenge your attachments, humble your ego and unlock compassionate strength then the process of yoga is [...]

  17. [...] >Retain strength and flexibility over time. Practicing once a week will not retain flexibility any more than dieting once a week will help you lose weight. Increasing the number of days you practice by adding a home practice can completely change your level of strength and flexibility and provide quicker physical progress as far as asanas (poses) are concerned. [...]

  18. [...] of backbends needs to provide an intermediate place for the student who, for whatever reason, physical or psychological, cannot go for it. This modification has to be taught side by side with the bigger more dramatic backbend. It’s [...]

  19. [...] yoga postures cleanse the body from within by going into the darkest corners of the body with twists, bends, folds and breath to literally burn through stuck material. Without the constant [...]

  20. Anton says:

    I also love doing beautiful backbends. I can band up from the the ground and arch up quite high. I also love bending over backwards into a bend as well ….the challenge I have is also coming up to standing position form a high backbend.
    My goal is to touch my hands and feet together while up in a backbend and arch even higher…..

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