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

Friday asana aid: Urdva Dhanurasana (aka backbending)

Last week, before DG dropped his pain bomb and sent the weekend online Ashtanga discussion in a particular direction, we had solicited requests for asana aid asanas. Frankly, after way more than a year of doing these, we’re running low on poses.

Our winner was backbending. A good choice, as there always are little physical tweaks to be made to help deepen the pose and increase those wonderful benefits from it.

So, sans further adieu…

Up first, David Swenson:

Next, Kino MacGregor:

And then a research suggestion from her:

Chris Croft:

The first of several videos of Richard Freeman at the first Confluence (you can get the other two on the page):

A not too often viewed one by Maty Ezraty:

And finally, a few days ahead of Guruji’s birthday, quick video from 1999:

The only preparation for backbends is…

Yesterday, as Steve noted, we went to a workshop at the old Center for Yoga (now YogaWorks) run by our friend, Maria Zavala. Maria called her class, “Urdvha Dhanurasana Vinyasa Flow,” although she was careful to give credit for its first incarnation to Tim Miller.

Asked to do a class for a photo shoot–so long ago Maria couldn’t remember the exact year–Tim came up with a sequence that, according to Maria, had some fairly seasoned people huffing and puffing. It was something like this: after the first suryanamaskaras, asana, vinyasa, jump through, lie down, urdva dhanurasana for five breaths, stand up, vinyasa to the next pose, repeat.

That’s right: For every vinyasa, an urdva dhanurasana.

Wheels within wheels: a chambered nautilus.

I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Maria, of course, adapted this so it was more appropriate for a YogaWorks class, and to suit her students. Some, like myself and Steve, can’t stand up from backbend, so we rolled forward and stood up for another vinyasa. Later in the class, we used the wall to stand up. But doing so many backbends, you lose count, is an amazing thing.

Amazing on a number of levels. I’m full of admiration for Tim, who is numbered among those of us who are Stiff of Back. “Avoidance is not the answer” is something you’ll often hear him say, and clearly he applies that to himself. Maria quoted something Tim is also fond of saying: “The only preparation for backbends is…backbends.”

And for me, the timing is perfect. I’m practicing regularly at home. I’m just learning what a pain-free back can do. Backbends have always been an antagonist. I never thought doing more of them would turn out to be a good thing, or even a useful thing. So, adding even more than the usual at the end?

Maria didn’t shy away from backbends as the asana between backbends. Shalabhasana A and B? Yes. Then a backbend. Dhanurasana? Yes, with some urdva dhanurasana on top. Ushtrasanalaghuvajrasana…kapotasana? With extra backbends, please. It was awesome.

“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” she told us, “but you’ll feel amazing.”

Are we? Shockingly, no. We did giggle like school kids all the way home, for no apparent reason. We’ve done a little griping about our hips, but no biggie. I’m writing this sitting on the beach, and Steve’s paddled out to surf. We both feel great, in fact.

Maybe it was because Maria closed with some nice twists.

Posted by Bobbie


Eddie Stern on Iggy Pop’s backbends

Terrific new blog post over at AYNY.

It’s all about Iggy Pop’s backbends, which he did during shows back “in the day.”

Here’s the link (which includes reference to another famous punk). And here’s a little teeny tiny morsel: “Iggy – breath through your nose! And careful of your knees!”

I officially am going on the record to say that Eddie Stern is confounding my preconceived notion of him. While his having this delightful-seeming sense of wry humor doesn’t mean that any of the “he’s super strict, he’s super traditional” reputation isn’t true, it is at the least rendering him in more than just one dimension. Sure, if/when he sees me at the Confluence he might be horrified by my practice and demand to know, “Who is teaching this method?” (I’ll have to lie!). But I’ll be looking to see if there’s that twinkling of humor in his eye, which I’ve come to recognize in Tim Miller.

Following his blog has really made me want to see what Eddie Stern is all about.

I also would agree about the warning about Iggy’s knees.

Posted by Steve

Rethinking not taking the Intro to Second class?

I just got an email from the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence confirming my registration (again, thankfully). More interestingly, it also added this:

Backbending on the Current of Breath taught by Richard Freeman on Saturday, March 3 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm is a few over capacity. If you are interested in switching to Intro to the Second Series taught by Nancy and assisted by Tim Miller, please let us know.

You probably received this as well. Any thought on what it means?

My first thought is that it suggests those coming are overwhelmingly First Series practitioners and are a bit leery of diving into the advanced asanas. (I’ve done some intro to Second Series classes with Tim, and it isn’t too terrifying. Just sort of.) It may also be that Freeman arguably is the biggest name at the Confluence, thanks to his books. (I’m sure plenty of you would argue with that; I might even do so.)

Or, perhaps, it is simply that a lot of us are focused on improving our backbends.

Would you be willing to switch that class?

Posted by Steve