Week 4: Heart-openers and back bending
Backbends stretch the entire front of the body, especially through the heart centre (hence why they are referred to as “heart-openers”), belly and groin. The primary physical purpose of back bends is to open to the full movement of breath and energy in the front of the body. Backbends offer the overstretched and fatigued back muscles relief by shortening them, flushing out waste, and bringing in a fresh supply of oxygenated blood
Backbends can be challenging, possibly unleashing confusion, attachment, aversion, and even fear. Because back bending requires such intense mental and physical effort, many of the poses in this category bring up our “stuff”; our inner turmoil and struggle are likely to be on full display and vying for our attention in every backbend we practice. If the discipline of yoga is to bring greater freedom, you must practice backbends in a way that accepts and accommodates your resistance—even values and honours it—while still letting you receive the intended benefits. The point of this practice is not to become someone else but to become more fully yourself, to achieve not the glorious backbend pictured on a yoga calendar but the one that is at once stable and comfortable for your body and glows with an inner experience of joy, exhilaration, and freedom.
Asanas in the back bend family cam be categorised into:
- Contraction: Muscles along the back of the body concentrically contract to overcome gravity (e.g. Salabhasana A)
- Traction: Muscles in the front of the body eccentrically contract to overcome gravity (e.g. Ustrasana)
- Leverage: The arms and/or legs press against a stable object (floor/wall or another part of the body) to stretch the front of the body (e.g. Urdhva Dhanurasana).
Mustering the willingness to approach backbends might be more than half your battle, but you can’t dive in without attending to your alignment and observing some safety basics to create stability and deepen the quality of your experience in any backbend.
Keep Breathing: “Backbends are poses in which people tend to hold the breath, but that creates rigidity – Keep breathing. That’s really the main thing.
Keep Your Lower Back Long: If you bring your tailbone in as you focus on relaxing the buttocks, you can avoid feeling pinched in the lower back, envision lengthening the tailbone toward the heels and away from the back of the pelvis.
Relax Your Jaw: A quiet, soft jaw creates a sense of neutrality that allows you to safely approach backbends; If you can’t keep it relaxed, the pose might not be appropriate for you.
Repeatedly Roll Your Shoulders Back and Down: Keep the “shoulder-girdle wheel” rotating away from the ears. This will help you keep a neutral curve in the cervical spine.
Engage Your Belly, Softly: The belly supports your pose, but it needs to be supple If it starts to harden, it will restrict your breathing.
Work Your Arms and Legs: Back bending isn’t all about the spine; Use your arms and legs to actively support your pose.