When people think about backbends they often envision a contortionist with their head on their butt.
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. I remember thinking, “But they look okay to me.”
To tell the plain truth, however, even for practitioners like me who have been practicing backbends for years—is not easy. For anyone interested in developing their practice here’s how to take backbends into your yoga stride.
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 feels more 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. 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 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 but a few, Sivananda-yoga contains wheel (chakrasana), bridge (setu-bandha sarvangasana) and locust (shalabhasana) as the basic postures. In the primary series of Ashtanga-yoga there is one wheel posture and the secondary series containing a series of intermediate backbends.
5. Backbending practice is a not just a class of non-stop backbends.
In Mysore (perhaps more famous for being the home to the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois), there are special classes where backbending is taught. These classes are structured to suit the individual need. They are also more than a class of non-stop backbends. Forward bends and other counter postures are given a lot of emphasis by holding them for double the time as the backbends.
6. Backbends are sometimes uncomfortable.
Frankly speaking, what can you 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 his 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 your goal. Does that mean you are less sincere 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 progress with a consistent practice and a sincere effort.
8. Backbends take time and perseverance.
Over the years, I developed a series of backbends as my daily practice. For me, it took a long time to deal with my fears and I still struggle with them. Learning to do a handstand in the middle of the room was one thing but combining it into a backbend was another. I had very irrational fears even when I used the wall like maybe it would move!
Whatever your fears are or wherever your starting point is, trust the process. It is all possible. The ancient texts say it takes a lifetime of practice, so we have some time left.
Originally posted on the Elephant Journal Blog, 2012.
© The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada 2012-2013.