Hey yoga teacher, let’s teach some backbends!
Backbends are scary.
Even long holdings of baby backbends, like belly down boat and cobra, are no easy feat. One must activate legs, buttocks, core, and engage lower traps while lengthening the spine and somehow manage to stay calm and breathe through it. A rockin’ hold of downward-facing boat impresses me more than any fancy-pants arm balance.
I have noticed that a good number of competent yoga teachers stay away from teaching bigger backbends. (I am talking about teaching these poses in the appropriate level yoga class, not gentle or beginners.) Wheels, upward-facing bows, camels, drop-backs from standing, etc. Maybe because these big shots require long warm-ups with ample standing poses, core work, and baby backbends to precede them. A deep backbend is merciless when done without properly heating the body, and as yoga teachers, we only have so much time.
Perhaps some yoga teachers avoid advanced backbends because of the potential for injury. However, it’s possible to keep them real and safe by using modifications for the students who aren’t ready for the full expression. A teacher 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 complex to teach someone how to go back intelligently and safely and coax them into the scary and unknown in just a few sentences.
A wise yoga teacher holds some students back so they can keep it true to their ability, while guiding those who are ready to take it all the way. The teacher of backbends is a seer, multi-tasker, coach and soothsayer.
There is always the question of how appropriate are these poses. My chiropractor says they are dangerous. A spine should never bend like that. Hmm…..really? I’m screwed. I love and hate danger. A lot of things we do in advanced yoga practices should not be done by anyone who doesn’t regularly practice yoga.
Backbends are beautiful. Big and small.
Even if you feel less than beautiful. It doesn’t matter. We can be miserable, shut down, whiny, sick, and selfish and still deserve this heart opening pose. When backbends are done in a way that is authentic and true they will show the path out. Or, how to accept the present moment.
In order to live from abundance and love, we don’t want to get stuck in that small place of lack, spinning stories about how this world is going to disappoint or how we are not good enough. A full and happy life is about belief in the self and trusting the process—especially when things are not going our way.
I am in a full room of people taking Bella’s yoga class. She is an exquisite teacher, not afraid of teaching anything, including backbends. Her chin-length hair is jet black, her eyes are green like a cat’s and her small body is strong and lithe. We all admire her and imagine that we are as beautiful and graceful as she is. We want her ease-the kind that comes with intelligence and strong discipline. It is halfway through the two-hour yoga class and sweat is glowing on our faces, arms, chests and backs. The practice has challenged us with lots of flowing from down dogs to planks and even headstands.
Bella leads us into standing backbend with the possibility of dropping all the way to the floor. In order to go there, you must be able to go back into what you cannot see. You must take care of yourself before you go back, engaging and lengthening the core because if you don’t, the back will ache sharply, your breath will catch, and you will retreat up to standing, unsure of what to do next.
I stand on the yoga mat with my legs wide apart. My feet are pushed into the ground and my thumbs are hooked around my lower back pressed into my sacrum. Bella asks us to inhale and lengthen our spines up to the ceiling and then she has us take a backbend. I lift my chest and drop my head back and become aware that I am looking up at the ceiling tiles and then at the yogis behind me. Slowly, I move my hands down to my thighs and even my calves and if I breathe a little more fully, I could bring my hands down to my ankles. I am deep. I could touch the floor but am not sure I want to. It might cut off my breath and feel like death.
Besides, I am not sure I could get back up.
My identity is wrapped up in this backbend. So much of who I am is in this moment. I am a woman, yogini, yoga teacher and yoga studio owner. My mind reels. Is my backbend good enough compared to Bella’s, compared to the other yogis in this room? Am I good enough? Am I worthy? Blah blah blah.
I know this way of thinking is destructive. A slippery slope. Not being enough, comparing myself with others, and feeling separate because of my perceived inadequacies is a long standing pattern. In standing backbend, I just tripped down my own dark alley.
Going into darkness is the easy part. Coming back into the light is the challenge. It takes my breath away. Requires me to catch a snake by its body and jump through fire.
Backbends are not for p*ssies.
It is time for me to claim my power. When I let confidence, happiness and acceptance have a place, I must face the worthy, intelligent and competent woman I am.
I am a backbender. Vulnerable, strong and trusting. Today I may not be a binder, arm balancer, or twister, but damn, I am an awesome backbender. Even with my demons. When all else fails I can lean back into the unknown and touch the floor.
I have been practicing yoga for 15 years and still find myself in the shadows but almost every time I hit my mat I have a glimpse of the light. Thanks yoga teacher for leading that ass kickin’ pose.
Thank you yoga. Thank you backbends.
Editor: Brianna Bemel