Meeting the Edge, Exploring It & Going Over: The Backbends of Yoga. ~ Heather Morton

Via Heather Morton
on Sep 12, 2012
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“Consistent practice leads to changing perspectives.
An altered perspective leads to taking greater risks and
not just meeting but going over the edge.”

A follower of mine has posted old notes and quotes of mine so I decided to share this one.

He refers to me as Heater…so here’s my Heater note!

While practicing the postures it’s popular to hear teachers talk about meeting “the edge.” This is usually in reference to the place where you feel challenged or that elicits fear and/or resistance.

It can also refer to the place where you’re holding back, not letting go and wanting to make it happen in “your” way. We may perceive our edges as the limit in which we can physically bend.

But what about internal edges? The places of fear and the areas we dislike, ignore, neglect and reject within ourselves?

These are also edges but because they’re internal (and ingrained reactions, responses and behaviors) they’re far more difficult to explore.

The edge really then can be understood in a number of ways.

The main point from what I’ve understood with my teacher is this is the place you need to stay—not run away from. Moreover, it’s not so much the external edge (the edge that got you to where you are now) but the internal one we need to turn our gaze (the drishti) toward.

In teaching backbending—and in particular the drop-back from standing to wheel—the edge or external limit is met very quickly. In other words, it’s such a challenging move for many students that fear and feelings of doubt surface rapidly.

This is the internal edge and quite often the place where many give up or run away. Looked upon from a different perspective it can also become the perfect place to explore ‘the edge’ and our perceptions.

The zen story about the overflowing tea cup reminds us about how we need to shift our perspective. If the teacher keeps pouring tea into a full cup it will continue to overflow—there being no room for growth or expansion. The same is true when we come to the teacher with fixed notions or want to force the body into a prescribed shape with only an external ambition. Lacking an internal focus or awareness in both conditions is like the tea that spills over the cup, onto the floor and into the garbage.

When the edge appears we’re faced with how to move beyond it.

It may become counter-productive if we’re not able to undo, let go and challenge our “ingrained” perspectives. It’s like being too full, but at the same time craving and expecting more. People tend to forget that the whole purpose of yoga including the postures is not to continue to “get stuff” but rather to let go and loosen up. Practice is far from being about acquiring more tools as it is about un-doing and un-learning.

Trying then to push past the edge usually does not work. It will surface again in another posture. Forcing will not work because the physical muscles have not been trained to endure it and the mind is not familiar with what’s happening. BKS Iyengar once wrote you cannot tell the knee to bend with the brain. While everyone may want to learn the classic lotus pose it’s not doable with this approach. Iyengar poetically suggests understanding the intelligence of the knee—slowly removing its stiffness.

The limits we come across in practice whether in the back or the knee (the physical edge or a mental one) can be understood as a relative point in time, practice and space. We tend to perceive it as something solid and not subject to change with time and practice.

It is, however, always subject to change.

Of course writing all of this is just a bunch of words. How does it actually to apply practice?

Here are a few ideas to explore. Keep in mind that not all of the suggestions will be suitable for everyone. In fact, the cookie-cutter approach leaves many people thinking yoga is only for the born flexible. I am using the example of the standing pose called mountain (tadasana) to the wheel (chakrasana).

These are starting points:

1) Contract and relax the muscles of the buttocks and legs. This is the first of two parts.

The second is to allow the spine to rise and fall and become aware of this being the natural tendency. The contraction/relaxation should be done over a series of breathings not up/down in rapid movements.

It works better to hold the pose, breathe and contract followed by relaxing while breathing and isolating certain muscles over each other—the legs contract and the buttocks relax.

2) Train your mind to never stop feeling and thinking about the breath. Every move (whether it’s big or small) is generated by the breath. This is how it really works whether you’re aware of it or not or think you know how to breathe.

Learning to “wait for the breath” and combining it with the body is challenging. This method helps to learn how to stay longer without letting the mind direct the posture. It’s a way of understanding how the prana (the vital force) is more powerful than the physical body and the mental fluctuations.

3) While practicing consider the central theme(s) of yoga beyond the flexibility of the body. The deeper teachings of Yoga are about the mind being a container of passing fluctuations. This should not be misunderstood as suppressing or denying what you experience. It is through the physical body we are working. However, it’s not through the physical body alone that you can deepen the experience. It’s by channeling the energy, the prana, focusing the mind and then shaping it along with the body.

4) Number three is well-worth repeating and in particular the part about allowing the energy to shape your practice. We often think of the body first but in Yoga it is breathing and bending.

A personal mantra to work with is, “Breathe and bend” rather than “Bend and breathe.” There’s a difference.

Try it and see.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Heather Morton

Heather Morton became best known for her backbending practice after producing Freedom of the Body DVD; an instructional video on backbends. Since its conception it has reached students all over the globe. Heather is also the producer of the Advanced series and a 2-part meditation CD. For 15 years, Heather directed The Yoga Way (TYW); a Toronto yoga school offering 6-week yoga programs. Founded in 1997 it was a niche within the Toronto Yoga community. Her life in Yoga, however, did not always look this way. Heather`s original aspirations lay in the Dramatic Arts for which she has a university degree. But feeling the pressures of not fitting in, Heather left Canada to live and work in South Korea where she travelled extensively for 2 years. Dabbling in yoga here and there it was not until she returned to Canada that she embarked on formal yoga training. To date, she has made 17 trips over 17 years to India to study with her teachers. She is the first Canadian woman to receive certification in the 1st & 2nd series from the AtmaVikasa Yogic Center of Sciences in Mysore, India. And later obtained a Masters of Education with a thesis on Yoga for children in school. Heather has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life Magazine and other media sources. In 2012, Heather closed TYW to fulfill more personal aspirations. Today, she is a mother and in between teaching and practice writes for travel magazines, YogaLife, HelloYoga, EJ and MBG. You can find her on facebook.


14 Responses to “Meeting the Edge, Exploring It & Going Over: The Backbends of Yoga. ~ Heather Morton”

  1. Hildo says:

    I've been pretty intimated by backbends. Being new to the practice I found this post, however, really encouraging and helpful. Do you do workshops in Alaska? And if so, can we wear fur and practice yoga or is that a major faux pas? All kidding aside, I did study backbending in Mysore at the Vivekananda center. I felt it was too much for me at the time and misunderstood the meaning of it. But I can see from having read your article that there is a lot of mental work. So thanks for this!

  2. Hildo says:

    So having said all this I started to use part of the back bending practice for stretching purposes as I'm rather into running and cycling. I find it quite helpful.

  3. nunh says:

    I am a fan of methods – thank you!

  4. nunh says:

    your mehtods (oops)

  5. Heather says:

    Thanks! Appreciate the comment….and glad to hear it is working for you:-).

  6. Heather says:

    Stretching is good and for other sports….can enhance one's performance.

  7. Emily Perry says:

    Great piece Heather! Thank you! I can’t wait to share it! There are so many edges in our practice, and they change over time… it what makes yoga so interesting!

  8. Heather says:

    Hi, Wonderful to hear this. Please do pass it on and pass it far. I actually wrote this piece over a year ago…but a follower re-posted it I took a look..and decided to share….

    With so many layers…one cannot get bored:-)


  9. Emily Perry says:

    Indeed! Thank you- …so inspirational. I like the idea of un-doing: the conditioning of the mind especially. I am finding that my struggles with drop-backs are mainly conditioning.

    I have found how this iidea of getting empty so that there is room for expansion is so important for deep poses; I also love how you talk about waiting for the breath— in difficult moments, it can be so hard!

  10. Heather says:

    Hi Emily….Waiting for the breath is a concept that I came up with as I started to become aware of how fast the mind moves in relationship to the body.

    I used to jokingly say while teaching that in our minds we can travel to Mexico and abroad but still have been sitting in the same place physically.

    I also likened it to the idea of waiting for a bus. Because the mind is so full of vrittis and conditioned patterns it helps tremendously to reconnect to the breath and become aware of just how many times we actually are not even present! Probably the biggest obstacle is understanding how much we take for granted (reL breathing properly and being aware of the importance of the breath).

    Physical pushing and pulling will only take you so far. The rest is breathing and relaxing mentally. All equal challenges that one continually works with.

    Thanks for sharing…so nice to hear your comments.

  11. […] Meeting the Edge, Exploring It & Going Over: The Backbends of Yoga. ~ Heather Morton […]

  12. Pengfei says:

    It is so inspiring by watching your videos. I wish I could attend AtmaVikasa Yoga series in India some day in the future.

  13. Heather says:

    Hi Pengfei
    Never say never. I am sure if you really wanted to go…you will find a way. Thanks for your comment..and I am glad you enjoyed the videos. I consider AtmaVikasa the bedrock to the practice. It is my primary practice next to backbending.

  14. […] Meeting the Edge, Exploring It & Going Over (Elephant Journal) […]