Eight Things You Should Know About Backbends.

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When people think about backbending they often envision a contortionist with their head resting on their buttocks.

Bending backward looks pretty tough—even a bit painful. A few years ago a student expressed feeling pain just by looking at the photos of backbends on the wall of my yoga school in Toronto.

“Hm, I thought, they look good to me!”

But let the truth be told—even for practitioners like me who have been practicing backbends for year—it is not easy. For anyone interested in the practice here’s how to take backbends into your yoga stride.

Eight things you need to know:

1.  Backbends shake you out of your comfort zone. 

If we stop and think about it most (if not all) of our daily movements are limited to moving forward. Rarely do we spend time defying gravity by moving upside-down, backward or sideways. It just feels natural to bend forward. It’s also the obvious thing to do when picking something off the floor. However, backbends offer an exciting way to move the spine. This creates better balance between our normal activities and breaks-up the rigidity of the spine.

2.  Backbending keeps your brain healthy and your heart active.

Medical studies have shown many people suffer from chronic back-pain. An interesting study conducted in an American university linked the effects of continuous lower back pain to lowering the grey matter of the brain. Read Losing Your Mind From Back Pain. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar recommended backbending as a cure for depression. He further advised that backbends be used as a holistic alternative for heart patients. Because backbends stretch the heart, they relieve tensions stored in the muscles and help send off natural pain-killers. They may also cure depression and boost the immune system.

3.  Backbends are a great teacher of life skills. 

When we come face-to-face against our physical edge our minds are challenged. This presses us to develop patience or to drop-out. If we stick to the task we will benefit from the practice—we will learn how to slow down as well as breathe. The practice of backbending takes energy, devotion, will, discipline and care; all good things for life. And, being true to life, backbending is no exception in that there are set-backs. Sometimes we stretch too much and we need to learn our limits.

4.  There is no traditional system of Hatha-yoga that omits backbends.

To name just a few of the traditional forms Sivananda-yoga contains wheel (chakrasana), bridge (setu-bandha sarvangasana) and locust (shalabhasana) as its basic postures. In the primary series of Ashtanga-yoga the pickings are slimmer, but the wheel still shows up. In AtmaVikasa Yoga developed by Yogacharya V. Venkatesha, a full system of backbends is taught. These range from the crocodile posture (makarasana) to full locust (shalabhasana) to camel (ushtrasana), with a closing sequence offering bridge and wheel.

5.  Backbending practice is a not just a class of non-stop backbends.

In the charming city called Mysore (perhaps more famous for being the home to the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois), Yogacharya Venkatesh has been teaching for over 20 years special backbending classes to a handful of students at a time. His classes are not for the elite, but a wide range of older, stiffer bodies versus younger and bendier ones. These classes are structured to suit the individual need. As well, they are not just a class in non-stop backbends. Forward bends and other counter postures are given a lot of emphasize by holding them for double the time as the backbends. FYI: If you decide to go to Mysore you can only study under one teacher at a time (no cheating).

6.  Backbends are sometimes uncomfortable.

Frankly speaking, what can you honestly expect if you have never bent backward before? Notwithstanding medical issues or injuries backbends take you into some pretty extreme positions. Learning to work with the breath as the force or energy behind the movement helps to work through the physical challenges. The more uncomfortable it is, the more the theory of the practice needs to be applied—that is, using the body to free the mind first.  A really inspirational person to remember is Stephan Hawkins—by no means is he limited by this body.

7.  The backbending practice doesn’t promise Cirque du Soleil.

In the end, the bud of yoga appears differently from one practitioner to the next. In other words, getting your feet to your head may or may not be the goal. Does that mean you are less interested and/or insincere in your practice? No matter how the flower of the practice appears it is the promise of Patajalim’s Yoga for growth. Of course, Patajalim never promised it would be easy, but we are guaranteed success with a consistent practice and a sincere effort.

8.  Backbends take time and perseverance.

I never really wanted to work this hard, but being inspired by my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesh (a backbending expert) I developed this sequence from first learning to do a handstand. My original aspirations were in being a day-time soap star so you can imagine for someone like me this could be difficult. It took several years and overcoming many fears. My fear was not in moving backward but that the ground under me could suddenly dissolve. Sounds totally irrational but I struggled with this for many years. For me, learning the handstand in the middle of the room was less daunting than leaning on a wall. Maybe the wall might move!

Whatever your fears are or wherever your starting point is, trust the process. It is all possible and it indeed takes so much time. The ancient texts say it takes a lifetime of practice, so we have some time left.

© The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada 2012.

Read more: Push-Ups 101: Dropping the Conventional and Taking the Long Way Home.


Editor Tanya L. Markul

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About Heather Morton

Heather (Morton) van Hettema is a Canadian teacher who is best known for her progressive classes and individual attention to the student. After producing Freedom of the Body DVD; one of the first instructional videos on back bends, her teaching has reached students all over the globe. As the founding teacher of The Yoga Way her evolution includes motherhood, travelling and teaching internationally. Connect on facebook.


7 Responses to “Eight Things You Should Know About Backbends.”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  2. […] was writing an article with the New Yorker, titled ‘The Yoga Bums’. She saw I was a fierce backbender in spite of the fact that I should have been doing the ‘closing’ asanas (postures) in the […]

  3. Thanks for posting, Tanya…I liked your comment on twitter…re: how as a mother you are screwed if you stay home and work or go out and work.

  4. […] I being such a vile brat? Where is the animosity coming from? Why does my body feel like lead doing backbends today? And why am I so against doing them? I actually like […]

  5. […] 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? […]

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