Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Some days seem to race by without us ever being truly here for them. We dash breathlessly though our jam-packed schedules, and then at night collapse into our beds and wonder where we've been for the past 24 hours. Sure, we may have accomplished a lot, but have we taken even a moment to feel the pleasures of the passing day?
When I find myself trapped in such a manic mind-set, unsure of what month it is or whether I've noticed the color of the sky that morning, I return to yoga with renewed motivation. My practice becomes a balm that not only soothes my frazzled nerves but also brings me back to the fullness and freedom of the here and now.
Of all the many gifts of yoga, this is one of the sweetest: Yoga wakes us up to life. It saves us from sleepwalking through the beauty, the amazement, the raw sensations of our passing days. I don't know about you, but even when life hurts, I would rather feel its pain than feel nothing at all.
One of my favorite postures for awakening the senses to the here and now is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), a beginning backbend that strengthens the legs and hips, massages the spine, and opens the heart. Methodical practice of this asana also offers an opportunity to explore the body and its movements with attention and care. In the process, the mind is calmed and the body becomes energized, leaving the practitioner feeling revitalized and refreshed.
Root Down, Rise Up
To begin, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip distance apart on the floor, 10 to 12 inches from your pelvis. Rest your hands near your hips with the palms up, which helps open the front of the shoulders and collarbones. Invite your body to settle thankfully into the ground. Take several easy breaths, noticing which parts of your body rise and fall to the tune of the inhalations and exhalations.
Do you feel the skin around your ribs gently stretching every time you breathe in? Do you feel your hips and shoulders rocking—even the tiniest bit—with every breath out? Invite your flesh to soften, your organs to relax, and your joints to unclench so the breath can more freely ripple through you.
Once you've softened enough to feel as though you are settling into the earth and not just onto it, bring your attention to your feet. Are they turned inward or outward? Is more weight settling onto the balls or the heels? The inner arches or the outer soles?
Carefully turn your head to one side and peer down at your feet. Readjust them so they are parallel to each other and equidistant from the hips. Sense the weight resting evenly on the four corners of each foot. Enjoy the steady, solid feeling of the earth beneath them.
Take another few breaths, then rock gently to your right just far enough to free up your left shoulder. Slip the left shoulder blade down toward your hip, creating lots of space between your left ear and shoulder in the process. Then roll back to center and note the difference in sensation between your right and left sides. How is the weight settling differently onto each side of the upper back? Which shoulder feels closer to your ear? Has your breath changed as a result of your actions? Repeat this simple shoulder adjustment on the right side, leaving the two sides of the back evenly settled.
Now send a gentle rooting action down through your legs, as if you were trying to press the floor away from you and into the earth. Press down evenly, envisioning the deep footprints you are making in your mat as you do this.
Notice what happens as you intensify this rooting action. Do you sense its energy rebounding back up through you, lightening your hips and inviting them to rise upward? Surrender to this impulse, curling the tailbone up and allowing the pelvis to float just an inch or two off the ground. Breathe easily for a few moments, keeping your mind focused on those strong and steady feet, then slowly allow your hips to melt back downward. Gently sweep your tailbone away from your waist as you return to the earth, inviting your spine to feel long and unwrinkled.
Find Fluidity in Your Spine
When you're ready to repeat this action, perhaps moving a little deeper into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, consider an image offered by expert yoga teacher Barbara Benagh: your spine as a strand of pearls, with each vertebra a separate bead that is capable of its own articulation.
When you lie on your back, the entire strand of pearls will rest on the ground. When you rise up into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, the strand will be picked up one bead at a time, starting at the tail end of the strand, near your sacrum. And when you reverse your movements to emerge from the pose, you will settle the pearls back onto the ground, one by one, beginning with the top of the strand, near your head. The first pearl to float upward into the pose will be the last to return back home.
Try Setu Bandha Sarvangasana with this image in mind. Press your feet evenly into the ground, feet parallel and hip distance apart, and invite the lowest bead of the spine—in the area of the tailbone—to rise upward. Breathe gently for a moment or two, then settle the hips back down to the earth. Repeat this action several more times, each time picking up another bead or two along the way. Remember to rise from the bottom to the top, pearl by pearl, and to settle back down from the top to the bottom. This wavelike action will infuse your movements with a satisfying sense of fluidity and wholeness, and will offer a deepening connection with your body's core.
How far you move into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is entirely up to you. Some days, you may feel the urge to lift only a few beads off the floor into a gentle baby Bridge. Other days, your spine may grow so enthusiastic that you find bead after bead soaring upward, inviting your ribs and heart to bloom toward the sky as well. In this deeper exploration of the pose, the shoulders and arms root downward like the legs, inviting the upper body to grow light and the pelvis to rise. As you ground through the arms and shoulders, you can encourage the chest to soar upward toward the sky.
Whichever incarnation of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana you choose, maintain a fluid and spacious feeling in your spine, moving less like a wooden beam and more like that strand of pearls. Enjoy the sensation of each bead taking flight and settling back down to the earth. Experience the warmth you've created in your thighs and hips, as well as the lightness in the belly and the cracked-open freedom in the heart. Feel that if you weren't so well rooted by your feet and shoulders, your hips might continue wafting upward, causing your entire body to take flight.
Awaken Each Time You Practice
As you explore Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, keep in mind a few important details. First, avoid the tendency to let the knees splay wider than the feet as you rise upward. At the same time, take care to keep the feet parallel to each other, with all four corners of each foot fully planted into the earth; you want to end up with even and symmetrical footprints in your mat, not cockeyed heel prints or toe prints.
And finally, as your Bridge arches higher off the ground, readjust your upper back so you rest more on the shoulders than on the shoulder blades. As you rise up higher onto the shoulders, be mindful not to flatten the back of the neck into the ground. Instead, feel the muscles in the face, jaw, and neck soften and release. These few adjustments will help your body maintain integrity as you move farther and farther into the heart of the pose.
When you feel your body giving way to fatigue, settle down toward the ground, taking care to lengthen the tailbone toward your feet as you do so to elongate the spine. Breathe comfortably and steadily, close your eyes, and drift back toward the center of the earth, softening every fiber of your body.
Climb into the moment. Open all of your pores to the experience, like a dry sponge soaking up rainwater. Notice sensations of warmth or coolness within, as well as feelings of fatigue or exhilaration. Consider the sensations in your hips, your heart, and your head. Have you allowed yourself to be changed at all by your exploration?
As you grow more familiar with Setu Bandha Sarvangasana over weeks and months of practice, avoid falling into the trap of halfheartedly moving through the posture just to check it off your list and move on to the next. In fact, you might even choose to use this asana as a touchstone, a daily reminder to infuse all of your life with mindfulness and care.
Every time you encounter Setu Bandha Sarvangasana—in class, on a video, or in your personal practice—remind yourself that you have just been invited to reawaken every nerve fiber within, and to savor every breath, every stretch, every struggle, every wave of life as it passes through you. Let Setu Bandha Sarvangasana be a daily invocation that beckons you back into the heart of life—to the bright and dazzling moment right before your eyes.
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