Back bends allow us to find those movements that can appear so natural with children. Each time I work with dhanurasana (back bend from the floor) in my classes, there is always at least one person who remembers ‘doing this so easily when I was younger’.
As we get older, our habit is to live in the front of our body (1). When we want to pick up, or look at something behind us; we turn. There is a saying that to ‘bend over backwards’ for someone is to imply that we are doing something beyond our normal limits. In this way, back bends become ‘unnatural’ and perhaps this is why it is easy to become tense or ‘brace’ ourselves, when we attempt any kind of extension (back bend) of the spine. If we can work at losing tension; at activating movement without force, we can locate a fluid and innately graceful way of working, and the asana becomes secondary to the ‘feeling’ we experience.
The beginning of any practice is to relax, but not to collapse. If we can learn to do this consciously, with awareness of each part of ourselves, keeping our mind and our body alert to each nuance of how we feel, our practice will evolve in a way that is right for us in that particular moment. The best teacher we have is that part of us that is truthful to our capabilities and refuses to force our body beyond its limits.
Taking your time in each moment you are on your mat is the first thing you must promise yourself. It is not how long you hold a position for, but how you feel. If there is any aim to our practice ( whether it be back bends, forward bends, rotations or simply sitting) then it is to find length, or elongation in the spine and so reverse the effects of compression (2).
Down Dog (Adho Mukha Svanansana)
In her book Awakening the Spine’, Vanda Scaravelli talks about the ‘division’ in the centre of our spine (3). From the centre of our spine (our waist area) we can let the area below the waist find connection with the lower half our body, through to our feet; and from the waist (centre) upwards, we can allow the spine to free towards the top of the head.
If we work with this concept from all-fours, we can imagine that we are being pulled up from the back of our waist and using this idea to allow our knees to come off the floor as a result of the connection to the centre of our spine. When we are in down dog, we can allow the weight of our lower spine to release downwards to the heels and by sending the weight of our upper spine through our shoulders towards our hands, we can allow the spine to free and lengthen.
From all fours, place your hands a little bit further forward, but leave your shoulders behind. Send the weight of your hips back towards your heels (without dropping) and keep your attention with your spine. Working with the acknowledgement that your spine is deep inside, keep your outside muscles as relaxed as possible as you allow the movement forward to build momentum from your tailbone right through to the top of your head. The path of your spine within this position is forward, through the shoulders, before, from the centre of the spine, you can lift upwards, away from your wrists.
To begin, you can work with ‘half-virasana’ to make sure you are comfortable and ease into the position carefully. Allow the connection through your sitting bones to the floor to be as light as possible, in order to let your spine lengthen upwards. From the centre of the spine allow your hips to settle down into the floor, visualise your knees coming in (collecting) towards your hips and back to the centre of your spine. Work with this idea and not the challenge of forcible stretching.
If the conditions are right and you feel able to progress further, you can ease back to the floor behind you, but make sure your knees, ankle and feet are not locked. Do not force or push yourself into a position that your head is telling you to do, but listen to what your body is saying. Work with both legs when you feel ready.
Dhanurasana (back bend from the floor)
I always work in this position with the acknowledgement that it might not be possible today. This takes all my expectations and preconceived ideas away and allows me to focus on what I am doing NOW and how I am feeling at that moment. Each time we practice we will be different, if not physically, then emotionally. Learning to be patient has been the greatest benefit I have been given from practicing in this way.
Start in a semi supine position, feeling each part of you in contact with the floor and allowing your outside muscles to relax. We should not want to force or push our body into a shape but to find a movement within our ‘centre’ that will be able to radiate spontaneously throughout our whole body.
If you can comfortably take your hands above your shoulder, work with your fingertips lightly in contact with the floor. Don’t worry about bringing your palms down or taking weight into your wrists. When the conditions within your spine are right, your wrists and hands will engage.
Find the connections through your body. From your heels, take your attention to your knees and imagine your knees being drawn upwards towards the sky (keeping your feet resting on the floor). This will give your hips the ability to lift as lightly as possible. Avoid the instinct to ‘roll’ or ‘tilt’ your pelvis, remember you are practicing a ‘back bend’ not a pelvic thrust. Make sure your buttock muscles stay relaxed and lower back is comfortable. As your spine lifts off the floor, imagine your knees coming closer towards your hips and following this movement through the spine, from the base, through your pelvis, to your centre, and through to the top of your head. If you work with your attention firmly rooted on the movement of your spine within your body, you may find that your hands have come into position.
Take notice of how you feel. We want to find freedom and enjoyment in the movement. Drawing your attention to your elbows and knees, work with the idea that they can be lighter, to find a way of allowing them to move upwards as your shoulders and hips widen. Your feet and hands find connection to the floor as a result of what is happening in all of your body.
The experience of a full back bend is to feel your spine gather momentum from its base through to the top of your head. There is an overwhelming feeling of moving through the arms and forward towards the top of your head before you go ‘up’. Do not push down into the hands and feet; they will do their work as required. What is beneath us supports us, but it is our spine that inhabits our awareness.
There is no need to hold any position. True awareness is to experience being with a movement that feels as natural as it is surprising.
Variations can include lifting one leg off the floor. When you feel the movement through the spine, from the base through to the top, your legs will feel their connection through to the centre of your spine. This allows one leg to come away from the floor. Being patient and being with how you are in each moment gives us permission to enjoy the stage that we are in.
(1)Scaravelli V. (1991) Awakening The Spine (page 48)
(2)Scaravelli V. (1991) Awakening The Spine (page 31)
(3)Scaravelli V. (1991) Awakening The Spine (page 10)