Here is a little progress log of me working on my back flexibility over the last several months. It is funny that I happen to be wearing the same outfit in each pic! I guess it is my favorite these days. The angles of the pix are somewhat different, but you can see my head getting ever closer to my foot! And my knee closer to the wall meaning more hip flexor openness. The eventual goal is to be able to catch that foot with my hands, to make that shape for example in dancer pose (natarajasana) or in one legged king pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana) or in full camel (called paripurna ustrasana or kapotasana). As I always say, arriving at the goal is less important than what we learn along the way, but it is fun to see the progress. What am I learning along the way? A little about the specific areas of the body that I need to work on and a little about the quality of the effort that works best to see that progress unfold.
As you may recall me lamenting, back flexibility is one of my biggest physical challenges in yoga. I’m pretty strong and my legs are flexible, but my back? Not so much! 😉 I found this new stretch about 6 months ago and decided to try it, hoping to continue to tap into some flexibility in my spine, especially in the upper back/shoulders and in the low back/hips. It is sort of a modification of King Arthur’s pose against a wall. The upper back/shoulder tightness has been a longstanding challenge, but was made quite a bit worse by my breast cancer treatment, so it is something I really try to focus on. Recall that the scarring we develop on the front side of our chest as a result of breast cancer surgery and/or radiation causes a contraction of the front side of our chest/shoulders, which makes extending the spine (aka backbending) more challenging. So if you have a stiff upper back or a forward hunching of your shoulders, this may be part of the reason. But this is even more reason why we need to really keep after it. If we don’t continually stretch and open that front side, the tightness and contraction in those areas of scarring can worsen. For this area, getting the arms up and over the head is important (see middle and right images). I have also really been loving puppy dog pose for opening this same area recently (Click here to see puppy dog https://youtu.be/tsD3QRU-UsU).
The other area that this new stretch works on is the hip flexors. You don’t initially think that the hip flexors are that involved in backbending, but in fact they are! Just imagine the front-body tightness I discussed in the upper torso, and translate that to the front side of the lower abdomen and pelvis. Overly tight hip flexors cause contraction of the front side of that area, thus also limiting backbending. The hip flexors are a group of several different muscles that flex (or bring the thigh forward/up) the hip joint. They include the large muscles on the front of your thigh, but also a lesser-known group of muscles called the iliopsoas that originate deep inside the abdomen/pelvis and then cross the hip joint and insert onto the femur (thigh bone). The iliopsoas is very commonly tight, especially in those of us who spend a lot of time sitting for our jobs, and is an infamous culprit in chronic back pain. I think it was a big source of my back pain years ago. So learning to strengthen AND stretch the iliopsoas, along with the other hip flexors can really help us feel better. And get us closer to those fun backbends we want to be able to do.
Working on our challenging areas requires patience, commitment, and determination, but it is important to remember to keep an element of gentleness and compassion for yourself at all times. Recall tapas, from the niyamas of yoga philosophy, which teaches us self-discipline, to keep up that inner fire that drives us to keep putting in the effort. But recall also, that tapas isn’t meant to be a penance or self-flagellation. This is why I love this quote from Pema Chodron, whose wisdom continues to guide me: “Determination means to use every challenge you meet as an opportunity to open your heart and soften, determined not to withdraw”. I love this idea of the juxtaposition of the commitment and effort with this element of softness and open-heartedness. As opposed to a sort of gripping or forceful effort. And this is especially true when working on backbending, where gripping and forcing get you nowhere and in fact probably hinder your progress! Probably many of our challenges in life are just like backbending. Scary, uncomfortable, slow to see change, frustrating if you allow them to be….. but also surprisingly accessible if we just approach them gently, thoughtfully, and keep up that persistent effort. And WOW once we begin to crack them open, they feel sooo delicious, and even tiny bits of progress are rewarding and empowering.
So if you have a stiff back like I do, whether from the upper back, the lower back and hips, or wherever, give this posture a try. As with everything in yoga, start low, go slow, and listen to your body. And as with all backbends, focus on lengthening and extending the spine, stretching up and out of your hips as you bend back. Don’t dump into and compress the low back. Work at it slowly, patiently, but with softness and an open heart, determined not to withdraw.