It must be February…love is in the air! Embrace this time to give and receive love with a wide-open heart. If your back feels stiff and your heart is aching, perhaps this month would be a perfect opportunity to flex your spine, open your chest, and feel the love inside of you! Roll out your mat…lay on your back and let’s begin our love-in!
Many of us spend hours bent forward going about our daily tasks (at computers, at desks, reading, driving, biking, chasing kids, standing at the kitchen sink, cleaning around the house – forward tilting tasks are endless! It’s no wonder our back, Â neck and shoulders are screaming at the end of the day.
Even our natural standing posture tends to be curved forward. Instinctively, we protect the front of our bodies; our throat, face and chest. We do this by taking a protective posture, covering the front of our body and closing in around it. Think about the times when you stand with your arms crossed in front, shoulders hunched forward and back rounded. It is a very protective stance. Â We can all benefit from backbends to open the chest and front of the body and counter these tendencies that have both physical and emotional roots. Backbends tend to elicit a passionate response from most. Often this passionate feedback is fear based. We may fear falling on our head and hurting our neck – a reasonable fear. This is precisely why intelligent instruction and guidance is necessary. Evolving in our practice with more gentle backbends (Half Locust, Sphinx, Cobra), to UstrasanaÂ or full wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)Â is recommended. Often we avoid backbends because they make us nauseas or lightheaded. We love them, dislike them or practice “backbend avoidance”. Â Many of my students love supported backbends but admit the love stops there. They would prefer a more familiar, comfy forward fold that requires less of our heart, mind and body. Â Surely this is an indication that we need more backbends in our life! Â Back bends require that you take a posture that is completely opposite to the naturally protective posture we crave. We intentionally expose the soft, more vulnerable parts of our bodies. This feeling of vulnerability can make back bending difficult and emotionally intense.
But it can also be quite liberating. Backbends encourage us to open the chest and heart, to inhale deeply – actions that symbolize embracing life.Â “The act of being able to feel— to truly feel – is important for balance, whether physical, mental, or emotional.” Moving toward Balance — Rodney Yee
A healthy backbend practice encourages and supports an open heart – allowing us to love more and love deeper. Â When we are in a state of love, we are naturally giving, compassionate, peaceful, and ultimately…. loving.
InÂ HathaÂ Yoga backbendsÂ are a wondrous physical motion that opens the fourthÂ chakraÂ and thus our hearts–literally and figuratively. In many ways aÂ backbendÂ puts you in a vulnerable position – the heart is a vital organ you cannot live without. Not only does this put your physical body out in the open, but your emotional self as well. There is a reason we use the term “heart – ache.” To let go and experience love, we must be willing to be vulnerable. When you expand your chest and open across the front – you are exposing your heart! Â In this posture, letting go of pent up grudges and resentment is simply – easier. Together with the conscious intention to forgive and let go and the desire to connect deeply with others – your heart is unbounded and open to grow in every direction.
“Love is the best anti-depressant.” and “Love is as critical for your mind and body as oxygen. It’s not negotiable. The more connected you are, the healthier you will be both physically and emotionally. The less connected you are, the more you are at risk.”
Benefits of Backbends
Strengthen the back and increase mobility in the spine.
Open the heart chakra and emotional center.
Energize both body and mind.
Expand and stretch the chest and shoulders, solar plexus, abdomen, hips and thighs.
A Few Ideas to Bring to Your Backbending Practice
Intend to bring your spine into an even arc so that no particular area is stressed. Certain areas of the spine (the lumbar region for example) have quite a bit more mobility than others. This makes it easy to depend more on these areas for backbends. Look for a sense of “evenness” throughout the entire spine.
Passive Back Bending
The Pose: Place a folded blanket or yogaÂ bolster across your mat. Lie over the bolster with shoulders at the top, and support your head so that it’s slightly higher than your chest. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on floor for more comfort in the low back area.
The Benefits: Passive backbending gently opens the chest and upper back while softening and expanding the spinal muscles. The breath flows freely as the ribcage lifts and broadens. The neck and the throat soften and relax.
Before taking any back bending posture, it is important to elongate your spine. Elongate first, then bend.
Because backbends often require quite a bit of effort, especially when starting out, there is a tendency to tighten the muscles of the neck and face. Focus on your breath, keep it continuous and flowing and release tension from these areas.
Relax your shoulders away from your ears, shoulder blades moving down towards your lower back. Also open the chest by bringing the shoulder blades together.
Set the foundation for your backbend with mindfulness and awareness. Move slowly and with compassion – there is no hurry! Clear your head of any negative thoughts or images and focus on smooth, deep breathing.
Remember: Â ”Consistency of practice is the secret to success” and you will get stronger, just by trying.
Full Wheel Instructions: from Anne Pizer – About.com
1. Come to lie on the back
2. Bend the knees, bringing the soles of the feet parallel on the mat close to the buttocks.
4. Bend the elbows and bring the palms of your hands underneath your shoulders with the fingertips pointing towards your feet.
5. Inhale and press down into the palms as you lift the hips up off the floor.
6. Bring the crown of your head to the mat. Pause here for a moment as you make sure that the elbows are staying parallel and not splaying out to the sides.
7. Straighten the arms as you lift the head off the floor.
8. Make sure to keep the legs parallel.
9. Reach the chest towards to wall behind you.
10. Begin to straighten the legs.
11. To come down, tuck the chin into the chest and lower down slowly.
12. Rest, allowing the knees to knock together.
Beginners: Try the pose at the wall. Take two blocks and place them leaning on the wall at 45 degree angles. Put each hand on a block.
Have someone stand behind you and hold their ankles instead of putting the hands on the floor.
Advanced: Lift one leg at a time straight up to the ceiling.
Come into the pose from standing and/or come up to stand from the pose.
Backbends on the ball are a wonderful alternative to the mat: