I’m not a naturally flexible person, especially when it comes to my back. I have a naturally flat low back, meaning I lack the normal arch in the low back, or lumbar lordosis as it is called. My Mom has the same type of low back, so it is just how we are built. So backbending has always been one of the more challenging parts of my own yoga practice. Backbending is challenging for many of us, as it isn’t something that we do in our normal lives, unless you happen to be one of the rare Cirque du Soleil athletes, a gymnast, a dancer, or an otherwise rare backbendy type. And in fact, in modern life, we spend sooo much time bending forward (sitting in chairs, working at the computer, tying our shoes, looking at our phones, cooking and eating meals, cutting our toenails, etc, etc) that backbending is even more unusual than ever. But this may be exactly why it is so important that we practice it. Always bending forward results in lengthening and weaknening of the long strappy muscles of the back, which can result in chronic back pain and poor posture. And in fact, if we aren’t careful, we can even end up with serious conditions of fixed forward flexion of our spines and necks, such as the so-called dowager’s hump (forward curvature of the upper back/neck, resulting in a hump-like deformity of the spine) or compression fractures of the front side of the spine. Backbending practice can return our spines to a healthier, more balanced anatomy, strengthening those back muscles, which then hold our spines in better alignment and better posture, hopefully preventing those serious back problems from occurring. Perhaps because of my natural anatomy, I have had back pain and stiffness since my late 20’s. Yoga practice in general, and especially backbending practice, has helped this so much.
Sadly, like anything good in life, backbending practice isn’t easy, and it is something that takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and a good understanding of technique to be done effectively. As I mentioned, I’m not a naturally flexible person, but I am naturally strong, and so my tendency is to just muscle through when faced with any challenge. This doesn’t work in backbending. You can’t just push harder and get yourself safely into a deep backbend. In fact, one thing I have learned through backbending practice, is that pushing harder can often impede your progress, rather than help you move further into these postures. Backbending requires us to relax, rather than to grip, in the face of discomfort. It requires us to release the tension that our bodies naturally conjure up in an unfamiliar position, to face the fear of falling back, to overcome the anxiety around exposing our soft and fragile front bodies, and to trust ourselves. It requires us to relax and breathe, because the reflexive holding of our breath only causes more tightness and muscular rigidity, which isn’t conducive to bending. In other words, we must consciously overcome our bodies’ natural protective mechanisms, these fight or flight reactions of our nervous system to a scary and unfamiliar situation, be gentle with ourselves, and get out of our own way if we are to succeed in finding flexibility in backbending practice.
As an aside, a little knowledge of proper form in backbending is important too, in order to safely allow your spine to bend backwards. We must always remember to extend and lengthen the spine first, rather than dumping down and compressing the back side of the body.
As often occurs in yoga practice, in backbending we can observe how our bodies work and learn deeper truths about our minds and the way we function in the rest of our lives off the yoga mat. Just as I’m not a terribly flexible person in body, I have historically not been a terribly flexible person in mind either. As a child and young adult, I was quite stubborn and strong-willed, typically able to achieve what I wanted through sheer force of will. Apparently when I was a little under a year old, I used to hold my breath whenever I didn’t get my way, continuing with this show of my will until I eventually passed out from lack of oxygen. Now that is stubborn! I don’t think I suffered any serious brain injury 😉 My poor mother! Apparently the Dr told her not to worry, and that I would start breathing again as soon as I passed out, and would stop the behavior eventually, which I did. But I persisted in being quite stubborn.
And then along comes cancer. As I’ve said many times before, cancer taught me that I couldn’t just muscle through every challenge in life. That just being stubborn and strong wouldn’t cut it. I couldn’t just put my head down, grit my teeth, and mow it over. Cancer, like backbending, taught me that I must have patience, relax, breathe deeply, release my fear, overcome that reflexive tightening, and just trust that I would get through. Once I realized this, the feeling of freedom, of releasing all of that pressure and tension, was so liberating. I discovered that I didn’t have to be so strong and rigid all of the time. Bringing that element of grace, gentleness, and vulnerability to my underlying grit and determination was just the balance that I needed to find my flexibility and a sense of ease and peace within this shitty cancer battle. Interestingly, it has been the same with backbending. What were once some of my most dreaded postures now feel so amazing and freeing, opening and releasing areas of my body that have stored a lifetime of tension. So I thank both yoga and cancer for making me a more flexible person, which makes operating in the world so much easier and more joyful. I try not to let my stubbornness and rigidity get in the way of my happiness in life or on the mat.
I’m still not that good at backbending, but of course that isn’t what is important. What is important is that backbending feels so good, that when I practice backbending I don’t have back pain or stiffness, that I move more freely and easily throughout my day, and that I have more flexibility in my body and my mind. Get bendy and see if it helps you too, especially if you have stiffness from your breast cancer treatment!