Opening Ceremony

After years of watching students push through their resistance and muscle their way into backbends, Annie Carpenter, a vinyasa flow teacher from Los Angeles, suggests a decidedly different approach. First, encourage soft receptivity in your front body. Then, integrate this softness with the strength of your back muscles, and enjoy a gentle opening into deeper backbends.

To help set a gentle, receptive tone for the backbending sequence on the following pages, Carpenter begins with an unexpected pose: Savasana. She suggests that you continue the quiet, self-reflective quality of Corpse Pose as you begin to lengthen and stabilize your lower back with Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose).

Move with the pulse of your breath throughout the sequence, and when the practice progresses to more challenging poses, engage the muscles of your back body while retaining the receptivity of your front body. Approach the full version of Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) from a place of ease, rather than overworking, and open to this challenging backbend as if you were still in that initial Savasana.

Carpenter’s suggestions can be used as a blueprint for more difficult backbends, but she’s interested in more than getting you into a bigger pose. Her practice invites you to see, in your practice and in your life, that strength balanced with receptivity can lead to graceful new openings. Happy New Year!

Chest-Opening and Backbending Sequence

To Begin: Support new openings. Sit on a block in Virasana (Hero Pose). Take your hands in reverse prayer or interlace them behind you. Breathe deeply and slowly, looking inward. Feel your back body move inward to support the lift of your chest. Connect with all those who have come before you, who have brought you to this moment and guided you on this path.

To End: Express gratitude. Take Balasana (Child’s Pose). Enjoy the aftertaste of Cobra Pose, grateful for the blessings of new openings.

Savasana (Corpse Pose), variation

Lie over a rolled blanket with the support under the bottom of your shoulder blades. Adjust the height of the roll to provide a soft stretch across your chest. Allow the top of your upper arms to drop into the earth and release your legs down into your mat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose), variation

From supported Savasana, extend your legs forward and ground your thighs down. Interlace your hands behind your head and let your head rest into your hands. Keep your neck relaxed, and on an exhalation, use your upper abdominal muscles to lift your head, neck, and upper back. On an inhalation, slowly roll back down. Take 10 cycles, moving slowly with your breath.

Cat-Cow Pose

Roll onto your side and come onto all fours. On an inhalation, stretch your heart and tailbone away from each other, lifting your head slightly. On an exhalation, round your spine, contracting the abdominal wall, letting your head and tailbone curl inward. Repeat slowly for 10 cycles of breath.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

From all fours, curl your toes under and lift your hips up and back to Down Dog. Press your thighs straight back and lengthen your lower back. Push your hands into the floor and firm your arms. Breathe into the space between your shoulder blades, releasing the back of your heart toward the front of your heart for 10 breaths.

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), low variation

From Down Dog, come forward into Plank Pose, and lie down on your belly. Firm your legs and press the tops of your feet down. Lengthen your tailbone back toward your feet as though your legs were your snake tail. Place your hands near your bottom ribs, and on an inhalation, coil your spine inward, lifting your chest forward and up. On an exhalation, slowly roll down. Pulse up and down 8 times; then release and lift back to Down Dog.

High Lunge

Step your right foot forward, keep your back heel up, and bend your front leg to a right angle. Let your back knee bend softly and lift your hip points up away from your thighs. Interlace your fingers behind you and reach your shoulders back. Dig the bottoms of your shoulder blades in and open your chest wide. Feel your heart lift and your side waist release back for 8 breaths. Step back to Down Dog and switch sides.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)

From Down Dog, step your right foot forward, turning your back heel down. Keep your front knee at a right angle and lift your torso and arms up. Create length in your lower back by snaking your tailbone down toward the ground. Take 8 breaths, step back to Down Dog, and switch sides.

Sphinx Pose

Lie on your belly and come up onto your forearms, elbows underneath your shoulders and hands shoulder-width apart. Reach back through your snake-tail legs to lengthen your spine forward and ground the tops of your feet. Press your forearms down and pull them back, opening your heart forward. Slide your shoulder blades down; spread them apart; and press them in, curling the back body into the front body for 10 breaths. To release, stretch your arms forward, bend your elbows, and rest your head on your forearms.

Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose)

Lift back into Sphinx. Bend your right knee, reach back with your right hand, and press your right foot down toward the outside of your hip. Keep your foot close to your hip and, if possible, spin your right hand, wrapping your fingers over your toes. Lengthen your tailbone back and draw your left waist back to keep your torso even. Stay for 8 slow breaths, release, and change sides. Rest your forehead on your forearms to release.

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Begin with Low Cobra: Place your hands by your ribs and lengthen your torso forward and up. Soften your face. Firm your back body in and up toward your chest to support you. Now, keeping both thighs grounded and engaged, drive your hands down and, if possible, straighten your arms into Full Cobra. Coil your spine into your chest, widening your upper back into your cobra hood. Soften your gaze down and look into your heart. Recline onto the power in your back for 8 breaths. On your last exhalation, stick your tongue out, hissing with joy. Roll down slowly and rest on your belly.