How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

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Session 18 - The Principles of Back Bending

Back Bending poses open the heart and at the same time create an opposing compression in the back. Back bending is dictated by mobility and structure of the spine.  That means that not everyone will back bend the same. Those with longer bones in the spine will travel differently than those with shorter bones. Bone length determines the definitive end of of the arc of the spine. Muscular conditions will determine how you will move in that given range. You really must know yourself and your truth as you practice back bends. Take refuge in the fact that opening your heart knows no bounds.


Back bends require the body to be warmed up before executing deep back bends. In Ashtanga, you will find many small back bends that help you prepare for where the deep back bend of Bridge/Wheel pose comes in later in the Primary Series.


We need back bending to create balance and flexibility in the spine. Back bends are the counter balance to forward folds in Ashtanga and should be brought into our daily movement off our mats as we spend an incredible amount of time seated - which is a forward fold. Back bends also help to create relief for the internal organs of the body - lifting us and creating space for optimization of the functions of each organ. (Side note: Lateral stretching gives us that benefit too. There are not a lot of lateral stretching poses in Ashtanga, so really relish the lateral stretches in the Standing poses like Triangle and Extended Side Angle poses.)


Because back bends stimulate and invigorate the nervous system, we also need them during this pandemic time to stay alert and not fall into the blur of sameness each day. Stimulating awareness/awakeness helps us tune into the smaller details in life - where we often find joy.  Back bends open us up to connecting with our greater selves in the cosmos - where we are all one.  The heart yearns for this connection and without it we feel disconnected and that can lead to feeling disenfranchised.


Another benefit of back bending is the encourage mean of opening ourselves up emotionally.  As we practice the back bending poses, we often experience deep emotions. Instead of stuffing those emotions back in, it is perfectly acceptable to let those emotions flow.  I once heard a teacher of mine - I can’t remember which one - say, “If you haven’t cried in yoga, what are you waiting for?”  Emotional openness with ourselves is part of the path of finding ourselves on our mats.


Now for those of us with stretchy hamstrings, often the back bends are not our favorite poses. The truth is we need them, a lot. If you feel yourself resisting back bends, take that as a cue to find an interest in back bending and to approach them with an open heart - pun intended.  Erich Schiffmann says this about them in his seminal book, “Yoga The Spirit And Practice Of Moving Into Stillness,”

“Savor this stretch. It’s one of the best. Bring the pose to life with your breathing and create the degree of intensity that feels best to you now—sometimes more, sometimes less. Breathe with feeling. Merge with the pose. Feel what’s happening. The inner feeling will guide you and tell you what to do as you go within and pay attention.”


The reason we do these poses later in the series, is that several large muscle groups need to be warmed up first:  Quads, the Psoas and Shoulders need to be fully warmed before attempting deeper back bends. It also helps that by the time we get to the back bends we are in the full groove of ujjai breathing and know a thing or two about the conditions of the body we are practicing in.  Because so many of us have injured backs due to sitting and poor posture, fear is pretty common when approaching back bends. In fact, when we are feeling fear, it tends to be housed in the low back according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The low back is related to the energy of the kidneys. In TCM, the Kidney energy is about using energy wisely, so back bends should be approached wisely - following the Principles of Back Bending.


Principles of Back Bending

    • Warm Up First!

    • Breathe fully and evenly

    • Gather in and up on the inhale

    • Don’t go further than you can control coming out of the back bend with grace and steadiness

    • Move into the back bend on the exhale

    • Counter balance the back bends with a twist or forward fold



    • Give yourself time to “acclimatize to the stretch”

    • Relaxing the legs in Cobras (including Up Dog) to keep the low back spacious.

    • Counter back bending with forward folding and twisting (the other directions of the spine) to create balance in strength and flexibility

    • Do not practice aggressively or recklessly - never rush through to avoid fear

    • Make it a process of many breaths!  Be a part of the journey and let go of the fruits of your labors!


I hope this lesson helps you befriend yourself and become open to where you are in this moment with compassion and love.  What the world needs now, is more back bending.


Cautionary note:  If you have serious back issues, please talk to me separately so I can help you find safe parameters in your back bending practice.  If you have certain medical conditions related to the eyes, wrists and shoulders, some back bending poses may be inappropriate for you at this time. Again, we can consult on alternatives that meet you where you are.