Bending Over Backwards Into A Stormy Emotional Sea
by Kino MacGregor
Published by FitYoga December 2008
There is something magical about seeing the body literally bent over backwards. It is the source of great inspiration, fear, dedication, awe, anger and sadness. Attempt to bend over backwards and you’ll see that one of the first major tests is an emotional one. Often seen as on of the great gates of the yoga practice whereby the ego’s attachment to perfection is immediately tested, backbending can be as emotionally painful as physically challenging.
When I first started a daily Ashtanga Yoga practice I was absolutely inspired by deep backbends and my emotions took me for a rollercoaster ride. Not only did I become more aware of my spine and my own emotional sensitivity, but the yoga practice also unearthed a new heightened awareness of the power and scope of my feelings. In fact during or directly after an attempt at a particularly intense backbend, I often became explicitly conscious of the repercussions of my actions and gained clarity on a direct course of action. I was also often very sore afterwards. It’s no surprise that one of the stated purposes of the deep twisting and bending motions of the yoga practice is to literally stir up sleeping areas of the body and the emotions. Backbending did and still does just that for me.
The body in the world of yoga is not separate from the mind. Instead it exists in an energy field that contains your physicality, thoughts, emotions and spirit all in one. The yoga postures work by manipulating your body into pretzel like positions that defy logic and ask your body to go places it has never been before. In doing so you also stretch your mind.
The freedom that you know first hand from your yoga practice translates directly to your life in a steady manner. It isn’t that when you finally put your legs behind your head or bend your back deeply that you become enlightened. Instead the effect is much more subtle and therefore perhaps lasting. There are small victories that give you hope and inspiration for your life. When you learn to forgive yourself for not having the perfect posture you learn to forgive yourself for not being perfect in your life. In doing so you also open the door to being truly easy going about life’s ups and downs. Similarly when you learn to release and relax into your backbend you may find you have the ability to release and relax into other tight and uncomfortable situations.
Backbending is perhaps one of the greatest teachers available and it involves more than just the spine. Every muscle of your entire body including your toes, legs, spine, psoas, diaphragm, shoulders and head plays a vital role. In traditional Urdhva Danurasana the foundation comes from the strength of the legs. Openness along the front side of your hip joints (where the thigh bone inserts to the pelvis) allows the tailbone to move under. Each vertebrae lifts and extends, while the shoulder blades move down the back to support the lifting of the sternum. In other words backbending can better be understood as backwards bending of the entire body. Yet the spine remains of central focus as it is the epicenter for emotions, feelings and energy. The esoteric anatomy of the body locates the chakras or energy centers at certain key points along the spine. Go to any chiropractor and you will see the importance placed on keeping the spinal column healthy. Any obstruction in the vertebrae can yield disastrous and paralyzing effects on your life. Yoga asks you to have consciousness within every vertebrae in such a way so that you are able to lift, extend, create space and bend deeply by using that space between the joint. This natural extension of course applies to all the joints in the body, but particularly to the vertebrae within backbending.
As you move deeply into your spinal column you may begin to confront all types of issues. There is the pain of asking an area of your body that may be used to rounding forward to bend over backwards. For people who spend a good amount of time hunched over their desks learning to move the spine in an arched, extended pattern will challenge their entire notion of physicality. If done over a period of time it will not only free up new patterns of movement but will protect the health of the spine over an entire lifetime with proven methods. Yet many people experience intense muscular pain when working with backbending and even in a simple Upward Facing Dog. People with perpetual pain in backbending must look at both postural alignment inside their yoga practice and in their daily lives while working closely with a qualified teacher.
Your hips determine the base point of your spine’s ability to move backwards. The iliopsoas and the hip flexors are two of the major muscle groups whose flexibility is crucial here. If these muscles are tight and strong then the degree to which you will be able to achieve a posterior tilt of the pelvis and move your tailbone under will decrease. Moving the tailbone frees the lumbar vertebrae from compression while moving backwards. The lesson of backbending is one of release and surrender and sometimes the greatest strength comes from softness. The ability to move your hips is often connected with the ability to move forward in life with a powerful thrust and direction. It is by allowing your musculature to relax, release and lengthen that you will gain the greater range of motion necessary to literally send your hips forward while you bend your back.
The shoulders form the upward support for your spine in backbending. As the shoulder blades move down the back your sternum naturally raises and the upper back releases into an elongated position. Being much more mobile than the hip joints, your shoulder girdle moves in ways that are more likely to facilitate movement and are more likely to create pain. Understood as the gateway to the heart, the shoulders protect, stabilize, release, reach, extend, get stuck, collapse, give out and break down. Louise Hay says that the shoulders “represent our ability to carry our experiences in life joyously”. Sometimes tight shoulders will prevent you from experiencing the joy of spinal mobility even if your vertebrae themselves are flexible and strong.
During the process of opening your spine, hips and shoulders in backbending, some common negative emotions are fear, anxiety, sadness, claustrophobia, suffocation, and anger. Some common positive sensations are joy, happiness, trust, release, surrender, peace, heightened energy flow and true power. One of the first lessons along the spiritual path is that when you’re confronted with life’s greatest challenges, you must learn to stay where you are and not run away. Yoga Sutra 2.1 defines Tapas as accepting pain as help for purification. You only purify yourself when you stand directly in the fire and choose a new path over escapism, denial and running away. It’s a powerful choice to stay amidst the intense fear that pain in any of your joints evokes.
This is of course not to say that you must power through and push past all your feelings of pain and anguish. Instead the process of accepting your experience of pain in postures like backbending is more about learning simply not to run away and to listen. Often what created the pain in the first place is a kind of fight with reality. The path of yoga teaches you to release your inner resistance. When confronted with intense pain that makes you want to get out quickly, the best remedy is simply to take one more breath. This will give you a pause between the stimulus of pain and the automatic reaction to run away. If you try to hammer harder or grit your teeth and bear it, you’re not actually accepting the pain. Instead when you resist and fight pain, you’re only pushing against it to try to get it to change. If you run away from an experience, you literally move away from it in fear. Life contains suffering and when you come face to face with it the only choice is to accept it, surrender to it and allow it to teach you one breathe at a time.
You cannot change your emotions, your thoughts or your physicality like a light switch. You cannot go from a stiff spine to a flexible one overnight. Yoga teaches you to accept reality as it is first and then in that state of acceptance see what change is possible. Working with healthy alignment, qualified teachers and time-honored methods, you have the power to change your reality breath by breath, day by day and year by year with your slow, steady perseverance over a lifetime. Perhaps the greatest gift of this practice is the chance every day to know just a little more peace.