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Are Back bends for You?

I love receiving questions from students and especially men. I say this because so often the practice feels like it has excluded them. It’s also ironic since all of my yoga teachers have actually been men in India. But in the west, there are many more women practicing and teaching yoga and fewer men thinking it has anything to offer them at all. And this misconception can be difficult to crack.

Below is an open and honest query I received about back bending yoga from a male practitioner and yoga teacher.

He writes:

I have come across your work and am very interested in backbending. I am a long time male yoga practitioner and more recently teacher. I have always been challenged by back bending and never seem to advance and fear causing myself long term injury. 

I have a very slight kyphosis which is the result of contracting Schuermanns disease in my teens. However, that was only diagnosed 1 year ago. I have always had minor chronic pain in my low back but there is nothing other than bad posture. 

I have seen many advanced yoga practitioners who are accomplished with backbending but end up finding their spine has always been able to move in this way. Almost contortionist you might say. When your spine is initially out of alignment it is difficult to know where you should be in space as you perform a backbend. You look like you never had any kind of spinal challenge.

The Raw Material

I have to cringe and also smile when I read this namely because from a young age, I learned my spine was curved. I often had some discomfort and I understood from extensive x-rays it was on a 17-degree angle. So I am definitely not one of those people who could ever move naturally into a backbend (not now and not then either). I always knew I had this curve because as a result one of my ribs ‘pops’ out (or better known as a hip rib). This is a dead give-away that my spine is not straight.

More recently (like a few months ago), I actually learned this 17-degree angle is more like 39.2 degrees! Yup. And my first reaction was pretty much, “omg, what is going to happen to me?” I was astounded all those years, all those hours and all those times in class, no one pointed this out! I do not believe it has increased over the years. I do believe the proper diagnosis was never reached. I probably should have had braces for a number of years while growing up. So unbeknownst even to me, I have been practicing all these years with quite a defect. One leg is also shorter and a lower part of my spine on a 12-degree decline.

Because of this, I had to learn to be more mindful of alignment and work harder on correcting it. I also had a car accident in my early 20’s in which I fractured my scapula and broke my wrist. My left shoulder is weaker and often my neck became tweaked as I learned to practice arm balances and inverted back bends. However, the interesting part for me is due to my early training of yoga, I never foresaw my limitations as such. I never even thought about all these problems as being limitations. It simply was not my focus.

It is, the very raw material I have been working with years and while I can safely say there are no tricks, tips and quick results. There is solid practice, time and commitment.

Limitations as Possibilities

Many Yoga Masters say the same thing about working with limitations. They suffered depression, disease, poverty and accidents. After learning more about their background maybe our own problems seem a bit more manageable. The one thing I have known from the beginning is that yoga has ultimately nothing to do with my physical body, but in learning to calm and focus my mind.

And as for the next part of the student’s question:

I can’t seem to see from the information whether the practice of back bending can build a foundation for people who truly are challenged in these postures. Could you please provide some feedback for me on this? 

The practices as I learned it from my practice offer a template for everyone to follow. Here’s brief run-down on how to approach your practice and what to include.

The sun salutations are the basic warm-up. The breath is key and using the lower abdomen in order to support the low back when more intense backbends show up.

Fundamental backbends include postures such as the wheel pose. This begins from standing and is generally practiced with the feet together. A key idea is to imagine the tail-bone tucking under and the pelvis (front) stretching. As well, widen the chest and use slower breaths.

Counter postures are a grounding aspect to the practice. These are customized to suit the student along with forward bend, spinal twists and the side angle postures like konasana.

Rest and relaxation is so critical to the practice. Proper relaxation deepens the physical practice. The muscles can only be forced to stretched so far when rest is needed.

None of us ever start off perfectly or end that way either. Yoga is the perfect way to help teach us to bring our limitations into something more like possibilities. Don’t ever walk away feeling there is no use or no level to reach for.

The way is different for everyone, but there is one.


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