Backbending and the Emotions

In the room in our home dedicated to practice, we have two very different practices, me and Steve. But we have one thing in common: Backbends suck.

In Steve’s case. . .Well, I’ll let him talk about that if he likes.

In my case, there are physical limitations that have taken me a long time to unravel. I’m missing a disc in the lumbar, for one thing. There’s degeneration all up and down the spine, including the cervical vertebrae (in my neck), causing twists and instability. I also have ginormous shoulder blades that block the range of motion, and I mean huge blades. The size of a professional basketball player’s and I’m 5’6”. (That comparison comes from friend and Rolfer, Russ Pfeiffer, by the way. He seems to get a kick out of this, and honestly I do, too: With a totally different rest of my body, I could’ve been a Laker!)

But the real block is this: Years ago when I was practicing with Tim Miller, he came around to pick me up to standing from a backbend. Which, by the way is not easy. I came up, and he tapped me on the heart. “Some stuck,” he said.

There is an emotional component to the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and I always knew this. “Yoga chikitsa” is the name of the First Series—“yoga therapy.” Second Series is “nadi shodhana”: “nerve cleansing” is a common translation, but “nadi” isn’t really a translatable word; a nadi is a point in the invisible “subtle body.” Third is sthira bhaga (as in sthira sukham asanam)—“divine stability.” All these names have emotional connotations. But until that moment with Tim it never really occurred to me that it was a two-way street: The poses affect emotions, but your emotions also affect the poses. When it came to backbends, my heart was “some stuck.” The emotions were in a relationship with the practice; and nothing in the practice makes this relationship more manifest than backbending.

Backbending made me angry. It hurt. I felt stuck, and now I knew I was. But there was hope.

“Do the pose,” Tim says, “Don’t let the pose do you.”

So it really took about eleven years of practice for the unsticking to happen, when I began the extremes of backward and forward folding that are part of nadi shodana. Everyone’s different, of course—some go through this early in the practice when the do the backbends at the end of Primary. I was a slow learner. It took Second for me—I had to be beat over the head with the sheer repetition, I think. But I felt, for the first time, that I was doing a backbend. And the rush of emotion was intense.

I couldn’t sleep, and when I could I had the most fantastical dreams. I had sudden rushes of energy, and equally sudden slumps. I teared up in savansana almost daily. The first few months were. . .weird. Tim advised and assisted. It was part of the cleansing, he said. Normal. And then I began to learn, emotionally.

Do backbends still hurt, physically? Yes. I can’t suddenly make a disc reappear or shrink my shoulder blades by being a happier person. But the chronic physical pain disappeared with the emotional pain. Did it get easier? No. Maybe the limitations no longer inhibited the state of the pose? Sorry, no. My kapotasana does not improve in that way. But now, you know, I love that pose. It has a use to me. It’s just a pose, and I do it. It does not do me.

My father used an old Marine saying all the time: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” The intricate line between our physical and emotional pain is sometimes so close, so fused, so smudged as to be indistinguishable and also invisible to us. Becoming aware of that has made me ever more diligent about looking for the places where I can’t see the distinction, doing the practice in order to tease them apart and make the difference apparent, so I can get unstuck.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Backbending and the Emotions”

  1. Such a wonderful way to articulate the pain of backbending Bobbie! I think you are on to something here with the line between physical and emotional pain and how difficult it can be to tell the difference.

    I’m not a backbender either and used to avoid them like the plague. The 3x urdvha dhanurasana was always a fairly slack effort because they hurt, I had lower back pain, stiff shoulders, yadda yadda yadda. But of course, I was continually frustrated. It was only once Tim Feldmann looked me in the eye and said what I needed to do was more, not fewer, back bends that I knew I needed to heed the idea of moving beyond aversion and desire if anything was going to change.

    On a physical level I agree that nadi shodana is a huge benefit for the back bending practice, but it wasn’t until I was brave enough to embrace the emotional level as well that things really started to change.

    Love your blog 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for this post! Immediately after the 3 urdvha dhanurasanas became a part of my practice, I felt soo horrible and emotional. I completely agree with you, we have to run TOWARD that which we want to avoid and run away from, otherwise we don’t really grow. Posts like this are so important because when I felt horrible after backbends, I didn’t immediately make the connection between my emotions and my practice – I thought I was just going crazy and I wanted to just get rid of the feelings as quickly as possible because they felt irrational! Reading about other people’s experiences makes you realize ohhhh there IS a connection and that’s why I feel the way I do. And that, in turn, makes it a little easier to accept and move through 🙂

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