My Journey through Urdhva Dhanurasana (Aka: Backbends)
Fear has a remarkable capacity to induce humility. Every Ashtanga yoga practitioner shares the experience of backbends. Every morning silently acknowledged in studios around the world, we all get the backbend challenge. Quietly, we reach the end of our practice, the front of our mats, and the transition to the backbends—dropping back, only the sound of our exhales and the quiet thud as hands hit the mat. What happens inside our bodies and minds, does not have to be explained, because its commonly shared and acknowledged collectively throughout the room–a sacred feeling only the Ashtangi gets to keep to experience.
This being said, every Ashtanga blog I’ve ever read–by teacher and student alike—has an Urdhva Dhanurasana entry. This is my entry and my tribute to the backbend.
Backbends. Every morning you challenge me. You scare me. You push me to my limits. You leave me aflutter with butterflies in my stomach. At the end of practice the anticipation of our next day’s encounter awaits. You eliminate desire—lust, anger greed—you simply push it out through fear. Through you I cleanse myself by facing my own fears. Whoever knew that falling backwards could be so purifying?
At the end of each Ashtanga practice I face what is inevitably the greatest personal challenge of my day–The challenge of Urdhva Dhanurasana. Perfecting this asana means dropping back from a standing position into a backbend and then coming back up to standing again, seamlessly all within two breaths. Until now, I’ve mostly been focused on the form of the backbend, and dropping back and landing on my hands (as opposed to my head). And now that I’ve learned to fall in a controlled manner and catch myself, my new focus is on returning to a standing position.
Every morning I face the fall back. I drop. I land. Bring my hands in toward my feet, and then try pulling myself off the ground. I pause. I rock. On some attempts my hands leave the floor, on others they do not. I rock back and forth again.
The fear of coming up now enters, greater somehow than the fear of falling. I know there is logic and there are physics to all of this. The laws of gravity can determine the precise angle at which I need to be to rock up to standing.
Knowing the physiology of my own body can help–that my center of balance must move as I transfer the weight–equally distributed between arms and legs–entirely to my legs. My sternum must come back above my stomach as I stand up, and it should precede my head. When sitting upright this all makes perfect sense. As soon as I find myself upside down, inhaling up, the laws of gravity somehow go all out of whack, and I find myself feeling glued to the floor. With a little assistance—a small tug from my teacher—I find my legs and make it back to standing.
Every morning I am humbled by this activity.
First, each morning the fear of falling is almost just as scary as it was the first time I ever tried it, even though now I know my strengths a little bit better and know that I’ll catch myself with my hands.
Second, even on my best days when I have a positive attitude, I’m lucky to get my hands off of the floor.
I’ve never been one to take unnecessary risks or chase fear. I don’t even like roller coasters!
But Urdhva Dhanurasana has challenged me to introduce fear in other arenas of my life—by choosing to take on new challenges in my work and outside activities that open new doors and bring about a self awareness of new equilibriums—balancing fear, anxiety with calm and controlled response—Letting myself fall in new ways.
As I started this asana and advanced in it, the response to my outside activities started to change, sometimes much to my own surprise. I took on new challenges and new fears.
No where has this been more extreme, perhaps, than in my work travel—Recent trips for work have taken me to conflict and post-conflict zones such as Liberia and Afghanistan (operating in the safe haven of security bubbles). During these trips I have recognized the inherent connection between my fear, backbends, and activities outside my practice. As outside stimuli for fear around me have increased, the fear about the morning backbends has somehow decreased, allowing me to advance further in my practice on each trip. These precious moments have made me realize the gift of fear—and the fulfillment of working through that fear.
Urdhva Dhanurasana introduced me the value of fear. Fear invites humility, and it is only through humility that learning happens.
“Fear has its use but cowardice has none.” –Mahatma Gandhi
“Engage yourself in activities, established in Yoga, renouncing attachments, and face with even composure, success and failure. Equilibrium is called Yoga.” –Bhagavad Gita, II-48
Editor: Hayley Samuelson
Mary Breeding is an Ashtanga yoga practitioner at Woodley Park Yoga in Washington, DC. During the day she is an international development consultant–passionate about contributing to poverty alleviation through work in governance, education, and solid monitoring and evaluation. For more information, please check out: www.marybreeding.com or > Yoga in Washington, DC. During the day she is an international >> development >> consultant–passionate about contributing to poverty alleviation through >> work in governance, education, and solid monitoring and evaluation. For >> more information, please check out: www.marybreeding.com or >> www.dhrupadmary.com (personal blog). >>”>www.dhrupadmary.com (personal blog).
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