The goal was never about getting your feet to touch your butt, but about being on the path. Let´s make no mistake.
When most people think of backbends images of a contortionist with their head resting on their buttocks is what usually comes to mind. Bending backward looks like a fairly daunting task, a painful one and perhaps not a lot of fun. Even yoga students who have been practicing for many years have gotten stumped in developing their backbends. While it is true that backbends stir emotions such as fear and anger it is a misconception to see at best too difficult and at worst not for you.
If we look at our daily patterns logically then it is clear the majority of movement is forward. One of the reasons why I believe backbending is so daunting is because we spend a lot of time doing the opposite. We sit, stand and lie down. Rarely do we defy gravity by moving upside-down, backward or sideways. It seems like an obvious thing to say but there is an important paradigm shift we may need to consider when approaching the practice. It is of course natural to move forward. That is, reach for the phone and bend forward not backward. However, my belief is that once we consider this it can help release a lot of unconsious pressure in feeling we have to be good at it and that it should happen easily. Maybe as well we can see that we are poisoned by a ´getting´attitude rather than one of exploration. This is exactly what backbends offer: a deep exploration of our deeper selves and a new way to move the spine and alter our attitudes. Physically backbends open the hips, strengthen and stretch the legs as well as the lower back muscles. Other benefits include increasing the flow of blood, massaging the vital organs and glands as well as loosening the joints. Medical studies have shown that many people suffer from chronic back-pain. Nearly everyone has had low back pain. Not only is back pain uncomfortable, but it can lead to other problems. A study conducted in an American university linked the effects of continuous low back pain to decreasing the gray matter of the brain. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar also recommended backbends for curing depression and as a holistic alternative for heart patients and in particular people with ischemia. Backbends boost energy levels, relieve tensions stored in the muscles and release natural pain-killers.
It may also come as a surprise to hear that backbending is not just about bending back. I have long thought of it as an equal practice of lengthening the front of my body and moving sideways. There are also several inversions that come along with backbends so the practice includes turning upside-down. Iyengar said that backbends massage and exercise the heart in much the same way that running does. The upper thigh muscles are used to push the pelvis forward while the feet and hamstrings muscles support the lift of the hips, legs and lower back. By moving the spine both forward and backward, the heart is stretched in many directions increasing the flow of blood. Unlike running where the knees receive a full impact from each step is taken, backbends realign and reinforce the ligaments of the knees and ankles.
Aside from the tremendous physical benefits there is a large psychological aspect to backbending. Our minds are challenged through our bodies and our fears are brought to the surface. Backbends have the power to teach us to become more patient with ourselves and to perseverance with the task. The mind moves faster than the body which needs time to catch up. Backbends offer important life skills like will, discipline and care. For a good life and a happier one, life needs these. And being true to life, backbending is no exception in that there are set-backs and pitfalls. As baffling that may sound the goal was never about getting your feet to reach your buttocks but in making the path your goal. It is a life-long practice that challenges our conceptions, preconceived notions and ideas.
Having practiced backbends for many years now I understand the images and the idea of it seem pretty far out. However, I also believe that the bud or the flower of yoga appears very differently from one practitioner to the next. In other words, it is not about looking like this picture or forcing your body into a tight position that feels totally uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to work through pains and problems as well as work with our limitations. But a cobra with the feet near or far from the head is never a sign of a trained or untraind mind. If a garden is like the mind then it needs weeding, watering and the soil turned over from time to time.
Of course, Sage Patajalim never promised that it would be easy. Instead he guaranteed that with constant practice and sincere effort the path can be taken.
It is all doable, good and about being on the path. Happy backbends!
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Backbends, life, practice and the path