I wrote last week about my rocky relationship with backbends, specifically Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s easily one of the most common backbends practiced in public classes and provides immense relief when done correctly—and deep frustration when misunderstood. I highly recommend hopping over to that post before venturing forward into this one to make sure your foundation is solid, because I’m about to shake it up.
This one-legged variation of Upward-Facing Bow Pose is hands down one of the most visually stunning backbends. It reminds me of my favorite motto “Aim True.” The body creates the shape of the bow and the lifted leg takes aim as an arrow pointing toward the sky, or in my opinion, toward infinite possibility. I’ve always liked the idea that our energy doesn’t stop at the end of our limbs but rather continues on beyond our body to wherever we want it to go. As you practice this pose, set an intention first. Dedicate this pose to a person or thing that you love, and then take aim. Deliver this intention through the physical energy of your body straight into the bulls-eye of your dedication.
Bridge Pose is a nice way to test your comfort level in lifting one leg during a backbend. Begin on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Lift your hips up and interlace your fingers beneath your back. Rock your shoulders and outer arms under your back to help arch the chest. Lift your hips without clenching your buns as you root into your heels. Keep a slight lift in your chin to keep the front of your throat long. Wiggle your right foot a few inches inward to your midline. Lift your left foot off of the ground and continue to extend the leg straight up into the air toward the ceiling. Keep the hips lifting along with the top leg. You can help this action by deepening the pressure under your right heel as you press your shinbone back toward your body. Press the tips of your shoulder blades in toward your heart and take 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Once you get comfy with lifting one leg at a time, make sure the base of this Challenge Pose is solid. Upward-Facing Bow Pose was last post’s Challenge Pose and forms the base of this one, so click the link above to fully understand your backbend before you add anything fancy to it.
Start on your back with your knees bent and feet flat hip-width apart. Reverse your palms behind your shoulders so they are flat and your fingertips point toward your feet. Lift your hips and head so you can lightly place the crown of your head onto the ground. Hug your elbows in over your wrists, plug the shoulders into their sockets while keeping the outer arm long, and begin to curl your chest by pressing the bottom tips of your shoulder blades toward your heart. Press into both palms to start lifting the head and straightening the arms.
Once your arms are straight (or as straight as they’ll comfortably be), walk your feet in a few inches. If you experience any lower back pain, lengthen your tailbone toward your knees to engage your lower belly or leave your feet where they are and don’t worry about shortening your stance.
Now, wiggle your right foot a few inches in toward the midline. Lift your left foot off of the ground (you might start here by lifting just a few inches and holding). Bend your left knee in toward your chest to activate your hip-flexor muscle, and hug in the outer hip. Roll the upper inner thigh down and keep even weight in your palms. Press the shin bone back to help open your chest. Stay here or . . .
Keep all the work from Step 3. Take the lifted bent knee and keep the location of the hip. Gently extend from your knee to your toes up toward the ceiling to help straighten the leg. Reach your tailbone forward and keep your upper outer arms rotating in to support your chest. Relax your neck and press deeper into your standing heel to encourage more space in the chest. Flair your toes toward the ceiling and relax the left thigh bone into its socket to keep the hips level. Take 5 breaths and then switch sides.
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MBG, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.