Updated: Jul 26, 2019
I taught a class on backbends this week, and it gave rise to a lot of thought about how powerful these movements are. Not just unusual in daily life, but how physically demanding they can be alongside they ability to bring up emotion.
Our spines are a combination of strength and flexibility. Strong bones and large muscles give structure, and protect sensitive nerves, while flexible ligaments and tendons allow the spine to flex, extend and hyperextend, flex laterally and rotate. All those different types of movement....
There are a great deal of physical benefits to bending the back - increasing and maintaining a flexible back helps with posture for a start. And as we age, can help keep mobility and strength in the very part of our body that keeps us upright. Increasing mobility in our spines can help to relieve some kinds of neck and back pain. They are strengthening and stimulating poses which open the shoulders and chest and stretch our hip flexors.
But aside from the physical, the most interesting side of backbends is how they can bring up a variety of strong emotions when first practiced, and when students move deeper into them - interesting though isn't it, that this won’t necessarily be dependent on whether the spine is flexible or stiff. The emotions can arise in both a deep and beginner backbend and can be both rational and irrational emotions including often fear, sadness and anxiety, but also joy and love. A significant part of backbending is the moving into the unknown, behind us. It is disorienting being in a backbend – the world can appear upside down, there can feel like there is restriction in the breath both of which can increase fear and possibly panic. People may believe their back will go beyond its safe range of movement and that they will seriously injure themselves.
The body’s natural response to danger is to curl in, often into a foetal position – to protect the most vulnerable part of the body – the heart, both in a physical sense, and as the energetic heartspace. Backbends oblige us to open this part to the world, exposing ourselves. Kino MacGregor who founded Miami Yoga Magazine writes “one of the deepest lessons in the yoga practice is about bringing the energy up the spine and cleansing the nervous system. Backbends thrust your full life up through this central channel and burn blockages along the way. When one of these blockages gets triggered it really does not matter whether you are doing a deep backbend or a beginner backbend, because the emotional state that gets triggered is really of paramount importance”. In times like this it is also hard to remain calm, to breathe and to think clearly. The guidance of an experienced teach is crucial to support the student.
It takes courage to undertake a backbend, but this can also lead to courage being built. Overcoming fears on the yoga mat can give us courage in our daily lives. Backbends oblige us to form a deep trust with ourselves which can be used to form a sense of daily intuition. Backbends stimulate the Anahata chakra, the heart chakra which is related to our sense of wellbeing and connection with others. Opening here can allow a person to open more fully in life, to emotions, experiences and in relationships. They stimulate all the other chakras too, clearing energetic blocks that can make way for a huge rush of energy invigorating the whole body. Backbends also increase our breathing ability – and breathing is key to truly embrace the life force that keeps us alive.
A vital part of the backbending process is the counterprocess. Because of the impact of backbends energetically on the body, opening, releasing, stimulating – the body must be calmed and closed again, neutralised, the stimulation quietened. Without adequate closing of the body, energetic responses can continue as if a door has been left open – sleeplessness, restlessness, over-activity, anxiety – and many other types of emotions, reactions responses dependent totally on an individual. Counterposes such as forward bends, twists and Balasana, hugging back into the safety of curling in can help. Physically the counterposes are important to stretch out the muscles that have been used in the backbend, much like with any other form of exercise, to ‘warm down’ after warming up.
In an interview with B.K.S Iyengar during a teachers’ backbend intensive in 1991, he said “Backbends are to be felt more than expressed… Backbends are meant to understand the back parts of our bodies. The front body can be seen with the eyes. The back body cannot be seen; it can only be felt… For a yogi, backbends are meant to invert the mind, to observe and to feel—first the back, then the consciousness and the very seer. Through the practice of backbends, by using the senses of perception to look back, and drawing the mind to the back portion of the body, one day meditation comes naturally. In other poses, the attention on the back is not given to such an extent and the mind moves outside. Backbends have principles of their own and learning the workings of the mind and intelligence in backbends naturally leads one towards the real aspects of life and the higher aspects of yoga. Because I feel that one who knows, and who looks into the back can look into God….
And now to speak of the emotions—when you do backbends, what happens to the emotional center? Does it not open more? Does it not go to vastness? So as we say that the empty cup alone is useful, you are creating tremendous vastness so that it can accumulate [absorb and withstand] all types of pressures and strains. So emotionally there is no chance for a person who does backbends to get depressed or distressed. The beauty of backbends is that the person not only remains intellectually—not strong, remember the word stable. “Strong” means like a scorpion sting. So I don’t want that intellectual “strong”—the words, when you say he is intellectually strong, they’re not correct. Backbends give stability, or maturity, where there’s ripeness in the brain, ripeness in the emotion. So we cannot become victims easily, those who very accurately do backbends. You can take catastrophes with a calm mind, which others cannot do. Others have to build up, but for us it becomes a natural process. We need not build up. That’s the beauty of backbends.”
For me, exploring these words of B.K.S Iyengar, I think of my own experience of backbends, particularly dropbacks into Udhva Dhanurasana. There is fear in the moving, or perceived falling, into the unknown, alongside the resistance in the hip flexors, spine, and shoulders. But with stable grounding, strong bandha, and a focused mind, they become powerful and more secure. Though I’ve experienced fear and sadness released in backbends, coming out of a strong backbend, in the initial moments, I am left with a feeling of elation and of achievement, alongside great strength. Those subside to leave me feeling energised and focused and more sharply aware, more certain, more positive. I understand very completely that to regularly practice backbending, allowing those emotions to arise, to work through them and accept them, and to allow the body to fully open and strengthen in that way allows the yogi to ‘take catastrophes with a calm mind’. For the yogi taking it upon themselves to release those emotions locked in the body could, I feel, mean they’re already aware of them, and makes them less powerful when something happens in life to release them.