Sunday, 23 August 2015

Better Backbends (Make Them Active Like Hanging On A Trapeze)

By better I mean backbends that will strengthen and mobilise the spine without squashing.  If you feel squashing in any part you are in some other pose and not in the one I am feeling for.

I was inspired to write this post because I started circus classes recently.  Just to try something different.

Me practicing some a
ctive movement on the trapeze
One of the first things they were teaching me was to hang upside down and do a backbend.  To me it was like a version of ustrasana or dhanurasana with my legs hooked around the bar.

It looked a bit like this.

Circus is a lot about performance and so my hands should probably look more elegant, but those who know me will appreciate I am more functional than glamour.  

Turn the trapeze pose sideways and it would look a little like
this active variation of dhanurasana 
But you can see how if I had my tummy on the ground that pose on the trapeze would look a little like this one.
This is active spinal extension.  I am lengthening without squashing.  My butt and hamstrings are very active as well.  To hang onto that trapeze I need good hamstring activation or I will fall off and that would not be a good look (even if I am about function over looks I don't want to face plant!). 

A good yoga practice should include a lot of active movement so you strengthen rather than pull yourself passively into postures.  

When I teach dhanurasana I teach it using active movements that will help you strengthen your entire back body in a way that lengthens rather than squashes.  Watch the video below that will show the active movements where I hold position without my hands and then read the step by step instructions.  

As always, this is intended to help students that practice with me.  It is better to learn from an actual teacher who is beside you rather than the internet.  Do not strain or do anything that hurts.  Move slowly.  

One of the great things about doing this sequence actively is that you still have something to work on if you cannot reach your ankle as it is not essential to hold the leg at all. 

Video Sequence
The sequence below is what I tend to teach towards the end of our practice.  

When practiced without squashing you should not feel the desperate 'need' to do a counterpose in any yoga posture.  

If you have squashed or over-tensed it is definitely beneficial to try active spinal flexion (firm the tummy so you can still breathe in it).  

I show a transition to down dog at the end and then down dog.  I am firming my tummy in those postures and lengthening the back of my spine. 

Step-by-step instructions
I have deconstructed the video sequence below. 

Draw heel to bottom
I start lying down comfortably.  I get a feeling I am doing a sit up in my tummy.  I draw a heel to my bottom.  I am breathing naturally.

Lengthen arm forward and upwards from armpit
Maintaining previous actions I reach forward as far as I can as I come up.  

Reach arm back towards foot
I take the arm towards the back foot.  I can stay here.  I do not need to take the ankle.  

The photo shows clearly that my hand is beside my foot.  That is a good clue that I have enough spinal extension and sufficient strength in my hamstrings to move to the next stage. 

If you cannot have your hand close to your foot then you just skip the next step and do the rest of the sequence without holding your ankle. 

Hold ankle, pressing shin into hand
I will say it again.  If you cannot hold actively in the posture then do not take the foot.  Just stay in the previous posture (where you will be working quite hard).

When two body parts touch I use an action of them pressing into one another.  Here that means once I have the ankle I push the shin into the hand (as though trying to straighten the leg) as I try to bend my elbow.  

I am not trying to passively pull my foot closer to my bottom.  

If there is any strain in the knee at all then let go and do the previous posture. 

Reach forward and upward opposite arm
I reach forward with the opposite arm then up.  At the same time I reach back with the opposite foot and lift.  

For those that can handle a more subtle cue, I try to reach out through that back foot while at the same time feel as though I am drawing the front of that thigh towards my front ribs.  

I am also doing a sit up in my tummy in a way that I can still breathe. 

Out, up and away!
I continue with all previous actions, moving out, up, and away.  Importantly, I try to distribute the curve through my spine so that it is not concentrated around the lower back. 

I work on trying to do a sit up in my tummy.

Release and hold position
Stay in the same position but just real ease your back foot.  

You should not 'spring out' too much.  One of the anatomical purposes of this posture is to be able to hold the position without using your hands!

Do the other side.

Both heels to bottom
You can guess what is coming next!  That's right.  Both legs!

Start by bringing both heels to bottom. 

Both arms reach out and up
Reach out and up through the arms.  The chest needs to lengthen forward and up. 

Both arms reach back
Then reach the hands back towards the shins/ankles.

Hold ankles
You only hold the feet if you can reach there without strain.  Also, I recommend that you know you are ready to reach the feet when you can take them simultaneously rather than having to grab at them.  In class I joke that this you should try not to waddle around like an elephant seal to fiddle your way into the posture.

Press shins into hands
I press shins into hands as though trying to straighten the legs while trying to bend my elbows.

I have my shoulders rolling out.  

Lift feet
I press my feet upwards. 

Lengthen through chest
I try to distribute the curve evenly through my spine, lengthening through the upper back area.  

I am doing a sit-up in my tummy in a way that I can still breathe there. 

Release and hold position
Then try to hold the same position but let your hands go!  Try not to spring away!

Hands beside waist
Take your hands back towards your waist.  Elbows press back and squeeze together.  Sit up in my tummy.  

Press hands down and forward, elbows together and back and come up.   A sit up in my tummy.  Trying to drag my knees forward as though trying to bend my hips.  Allow your pelvis to come away from the floor so there is no squashing. 

Knees to chest
Sit back to your heels then lift your knees into your chest, trying to hug them in as close as possible.  

Down dog
Press the heels back, keep the sit up in your tummy, and come into downward facing dog. 

Once you have all of this in place, you can start to work on more shoulder mobility to come into the fuller dhanurasana but that requires tremendous and careful practice for a long time for most people. 

My yoga teacher has amazing spinal mobility and this type of posture would have her head touching her feet or having her legs straight up to the sky while she hold onto her ankles.  I am still a novice and quite stiff and weak comparatively.  But we all work to our own bodies and best not to compare yourself.  That is why I suggest trying the active version with no need to even hold the ankle at all!

Have fun.  Move slowly.  Tense less.  Stretch less.  Think less.  Breathe less.  

This is the type of practice I encourage in my outdoor classes in Canberra and retreats in Sri Lanka.  Come along if you like!

Happy and safe practicing.  

Much metta!


  1. Hi! Thanks for the great step by step explanation. I especially like the little joke about the seal. I've been there. Sadly, there are too many expectations and not enough patience in many yoga classes. It is an exploration of our bodies and hopefully is enjoyable at each discovery. As always, you've given me more to think about. Thanks, Ann

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments, Ann. This way of doing dhanurasana really helps you feel like you are doing something even if you do not catch the foot, which is what I really like about it. Many people do a lot of straining or waddling or flapping around to get those hands on their ankles and I just make the joke to help us see whether we are being mindful of how we are moving into a posture and whether our focus has shifted instead to being somewhere we might not be ready for. I, too, have been in those places and still need to remind myself to avoid tuning into the alluring call of a challenging posture over the present state of my body! Have a great week. Much metta, Samantha

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