Y’all have heard me talk about how I find backbends particularly challenging. But at the same time, I find them tremendously freeing and opening, meaning after I practice a deep backbend, I feel like something that was previously stuck is becoming unstuck, and I feel this rush of relaxing energy buzzing around my body. In other words, I have a love-hate relationship with backbends. But the love part is growing stronger with time and practice.
There are a lot of reasons why backbends can be challenging. For one thing, we never backbend in normal life. We are always bending forward, maybe now more than ever with our technology driven lifestyle. We bend forward looking at our phones, working at the computer, sitting on the couch watching netflix, not to mention while cooking, eating, reading a book, driving our cars, and tying our shoes. We very rarely bend backward. So the feeling is just foreign, which translates to scary and uncomfortable for many of us. Not only are our spines not used to it, but the soft tissues on the front side of our body aren’t used to it. The muscles of the abdominal wall and front of the pelvis/hips can be tight, and feel overstretched in backbends. And for us breast cancer survivors, we often have tremendous tightness on the front side of our chest and shoulders related to surgery and/or radiation, and this makes backbending even more challenging. We might also fear falling over backwards in a backbend, afraid that we are not as coordinated or in control of our bodies in these positions, so we can’t catch ourselves if we fall.
So what do we do when we are scared or we feel uncomfortable? We tense up our muscles and we hold our breath, both of which make us even less flexible. Next time you try a backbend, see if you can notice muscles tensing up. Perhaps in your back, your glutes, your hips, or your shoulders. I know they do for me. I have to remind myself to get out of my own way. To breathe deeply. And to relax. When I am able to do that, I find so much flexibility that I didn’t know I had, and this is where I find that opening, that un-sticking, that freeing up of previously obstructed energy flow. And I think this is what Iyengar means, when he says “There must be relaxation in full extension”. If we are to get the full benefits of backbending postures, or spinal extensions as we call them in yoga, we must learn to relax, even in the midst of these uncomfortable and challenging positions.
Even more than the physical challenges associated with backbending (front body tightness, muscle tension, spinal stiffness), we can also be challenged by some mental or emotional roadblocks. The front side of our body is the sensitive side, the vulnerable side. And just as animals protect the front, or belly/throat-side, of their bodies in an attack or battle with another animal, we seem to instinctively know that we need to protect the front side of our bodies more than our back sides, which are more durable and resistant to injury, owing to our bony spine, ribs, and large back muscles. So when we bend backward, we can feel this profound vulnerability, as we open up our soft front side to the world. Even though we know nobody is going to jab a spear through our belly in the yoga studio, we still feel exposed and vulnerable, and this adds to the discomfort. Compound that with our self-consciousness about our breast cancer scars, our reluctance to show those to the world, and our fear that those areas might be weak or fragile, and backbends are just all kinds of difficult.
But this is what the practice of yoga is about. Not only will backbending practice release the tightness in our chest and shoulders, strengthen back muscles, improve posture, optimize bloodflow to the spine and surrounding tissues, and make us feel physically better. At the same time, we are training ourselves to do things that are challenging, and we are slowly learning to be able to do them with ease and grace, using the strength of our minds and our breath to carry us through. Learning to open, rather than retreat, in the face of vulnerability and fear. Learning to trust ourselves and tune in to our resilience, even in our most difficult moments. And it is here that we discover we are powerful beyond measure. That no challenge, be it breast cancer treatment or other serious life trauma, can close us down. Instead, we relax into the backbend, shining our hearts, our breasts (or scars as it may be), and our bellies out into the world, vulnerable, but confident in ourselves, and free.
Backbend on, yogis! You can do it, and you’ll thank yourself later.