Backbending is a wonderful way to counter the daily slump of our postural lives. We get up and hunch over the breakfast table, get in the car and hunch towards the steering wheel, and then a lot of us get to work and huddle up in front of a computer. Altogether too much time spent being forward and it's just not good for us!
In our workshop this weekend I am going to try and teach the art of effortless backbends to free your spine. I have taken the liberty of cheating and quoting myself below--this is an extract of a previous blogpost I wrote for my students in Sri Lanka. The text goes with the video above of me (with part of my head cut out) practicing my own 'effortless backbends'.
Now that I have ventured into the world of movie-making with myself as writer, producer, sound guy, actress, stunt-woman, special effects coordinator, body double etc, etc, I have noticed something I had not quite noticed before. I have tiny little twig arms that look like they might snap in two! Yet, even with said twig arms, I am able to come up from the floor into poses like urdhva dhanurasana (let’s just call it urdhva D, which makes the pose sound a bit like a rap song but a whole lot easier to read).
In class people often talk about not feeling strong enough to come up into urdhva D. However, strength is probably not the issue as you can see with my twig arm practice.
Now, I know I am going to hear a whole host of comments to the tune of I don’t have much to lift up (although these might just imagined, comments since I can’t be sure anyone is actually reading this), but coming up into a backbend is less about strength than it is about finding the wind in your sail that billows out your chest and carries you high—imagine a kite that gets picked up by a gust of wind.
Recently I have been experimenting with different ways of coming up and down into urdhva D so that I feel relaxed and free. There are many ways and methods of coming up into urdhva D and this is just one I use at the moment. Maybe some of the ideas might be helpful for you, which is why I am posting them.
After you watch the movie clip and read the blog, go away and remember to practice with mindfulness and a sense of playful curiosity. Don’t get stuck in your yoga practice and stuck in ways of doing things. The body needs to be challenged or it gets dull. And (obligatory safety message although as yogis hopefully the desire to be mindful and present in your poses will steer you automatically towards safety) never move into pain. Have a chat with your yoga teacher if you have any concerns.
Your pelvis as a helium balloon
Our bums and pelvis are getting good coverage in this blog so far and that continues here. When you come down onto the floor, remember to place the feet mindfully.
Really engage the power in the ball and outside edge of the foot.
From here send the knees away from you a few times and feel your pelvis float away from you. It rises effortlessly. You don’t need to do anything. You don’t need to squeeze, thrust, or push. You just need to let it float up like a helium balloon. It does not need to come up very far at all—just let it get lift-off so it becomes weightless.
And yes, even the biggest of bums is going to feel weightless here.
Once it is up there, let your pelvis and lower back be free. Move it gently around like a hanging basket and experience this freedom.
Your chest as a sail
With your pelvis lifted (but not pushed, or thrust etc), bring your awareness to the space between your shoulder blades and the corresponding place on the front of your chest (just about the middle of your sternum). This part is going to become like a sail on a sailboat. To come up into a nice urdhva D you are going to have to catch the wind in this sail.
The tricky part about this is trying to catch the wind in your sail and not the wind in your tail. When you first start practicing this move your pelvis might come up too but you are actually trying to isolate the two movements. So, if your pelvis comes up, don’t worry about it, just let it float down again and concentrate on getting lift in the sail (not the tail).
Another good thing to remember is that the wind is going to billow out the sail in all directions—your back is going to broaden and your chest is going to rise at the same time.
In the movie clip I add another movement here to really get my sail into full bloom. The secret is in the arms. Can you see what I am doing? It might look like I am just taking my elbows around in a circle and then digging them into the floor. What I am actually doing is using that movement of the elbows to help encourage my shoulder blades to move further down towards my waist. This action is really important. I will say it again just so you get how important it is. This action is really important.
What I am trying to do is to feel as though I have connected my outer armpits the top of my pelvis. This action is going to help create the circle in urdhva D.
Pause, relax, and breathe
I have never met anyone who cannot find a way to do those two actions (helium bum and wind in the sail). It might take some practice, but it will come. And when it does, come up, come down, come up, come down, and just enjoy the movement.
Some days I just stay here for a long time, really using the combined actions of sending my pelvis one way and heart the other to create length and freedom in my spine. In the movie clip I have come up much higher than you really need to and that is just for effect. You can just stay low, pause, relax, and breathe.
Do not skip this stage. If you are a person who has trouble coming up into urdhva D, you probably start to get anxious and stressed and start worrying about how you will get up and if you will get up at this point. Rather than use your energy in worrying, take time to just breathe. Feel what it is like to just hang out here with no pressure, no idea of what is going to come next.
Put the hands in place
If you feel relaxed and your spine feels free, then very casually put your hands in place. As you do so, try as much as you can to keep those outer armpits moving down to the waist.
If you cannot get your hands on the floor without losing too much of the connection between your armpits and your waist then you might just need to stay at the previous stage until I write my blog on using a prop to help you. For effortless backbending you really do need to keep those upper arms bones moving into the body. You can still come up but it will feel much more like you are levering yourself up and using brute strength.
If you can get your hands mindfully into the floor then all you need to do is press through the hands, press through the feet, catch the wind in the sail….and fly!
Nothing happens overnight. If you can’t get your hands into the floor then stick with the initial stages. In the mean-time, your yoga teacher should be able to give you some tips, props, and pointers, and may even help you find the lift you need by assisting you.
In your own practice, remember to be mindful and patient, and to work on catching the wind in your sail combined with freedom in the lower back. Other parts of your body will need to open to help you come into an effortless urdhva D, especially around the shoulders and front of the hips, but this pose is always going to be about relaxing rather than brute strength.
Enjoy your practice! Hope to see you at the workshop on Saturday. We are braving the outdoors for the last time until the weather gets better but the BOM says it will be 22 on Sunday with very little wind and no rain so I think we will have a great day out. Please let me know if you are coming!
PS: If you want to see a real genuis backbender to inspire you, check out this youtube link of Paddy doing 'extreme backbends'
Classes (current at time of posting. See class schedule page for updated details):
Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]
Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12
Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah
Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5
Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15
Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15