In my experience, there are 2 types of yogis in this world, those who love backbends and those who dread them.
For those who love them, backbends are exciting, uplifting, joyous, invigorating and fun. For those who don’t, backbends are difficult, fearful and even painful. Today’s modern lifestyle often involves sitting for long periods, working on computers, driving and text neck from constantly being on our phones. This can lead to postural kyphosis, being chronically tight along the front body and weaker along the back. Back bending can counteract the negative effects of poor posture and bad habits by opening the front body.
Traction: those that move with gravity, such as camel pose or dropping back to wheel from standing. These poses require strength in the legs, openness in the chest and the courage to drop backwards.
Contraction: Contraction backbends move against gravity, examples include Cobra and Bow pose. This type of backbend requires enough strength in the back muscles to overcome gravity and lift up.
Back bending poses work on more than just the physical body, also known as heart openers, backbends work on the Anahata or heart chakra. We have 7 main chakras in the body, the heart chakra, positioned at the centre of the chest, is the 4th chakra or middle chakra. It is known as the mediator or the bridge between the body and the mind, the ego and the soul. Anahata means unstuck, unhurt and unbeaten. The qualities of the heart chakra are love, joy and compassion. When in balance we love, give and receive easily and feel connected, when this chakra is blocked, we can feel lonely and become cold, distant.
The element of the Anahata chakra is air and space. Backbends create space in the heart centre as we open the chest and heart. They activate prana vayu, an energizing force that governs respiration and reception.
Physically Anahata chakra governs the heart, lungs and arms. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the emotions of the heart are joy and anger, the lungs are grief and sadness. Often these strong emotions come to the surface, intense laughter or crying are some or the emotional releases that can come with a strong back bending practice.
I experienced all of this in my yoga teacher training. Regular practice opened my body but I still met resistance on the mat. It was only when I finally acknowledged the grief and sadness I had been ignoring that I began to breakthrough those backbends. A back bending practice can be incredibly healing for body and mind.
Set an intention for your practice. What do you want to achieve. Are your goals physical or emotional, or both? An intention helps you to stay focused and aware of what might arise during the practice.
Warm up with some sun salutations, chest and shoulder openers, side body stretches and quad openers. Backbends are healing but only if your body is properly prepared. If you are unsure seek the advice of a qualified teacher or yoga therapist.
If you are new to backbends or know you struggle with them, start small. Try a passive, supported backbend like supta badha konasana (reclined cobbler supported with a bolster) or a contraction backbend like cobra. These will help to strengthen your back and build confidence.
As Shri K Pattabhi Jois said “do your practice and all is coming”. Flexibility doesn’t happen overnight it needs practice and patience; try to work on your backbends a few times per week. Don’t quit too soon, backbends can bring up anxious and fearful feelings and an urge to escape is normal. The pose begins when you want to leave it, as long as you are not in pain, see if you can stay just one more breath.
Self love and compassion are key to healing the heart chakra. For many people backbends are incredibly challenging. Accept where you are on your journey and be grateful for what your body can do instead of focusing on what it can’t. Acknowledge what emotions come up, frustration is normal and just let it go.
Backbends are challenging but if you can break through the discomfort and fear, an amazing, uplifting and joyful journey lies ahead.
Join me for a heart opening backbending practice in Spain from 28th of May to 2nd of June 2017.
What do you love or hate about backbends? We’d love to hear. Tell us in the comments below
See you on the mountain,