"I think of backbends as the closest I'll ever get to flying," says senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden. There's a poem by Rumi that, for her, captures the essence of backbending: "Stop the words now. Open the window in the center of your chest and let the spirits fly in and out." Walden's elegant backbends might lead you to think they have always been a breeze for her. Far from it, she says: For years, it was hard to do them without lower-back pain, so she empathizes with students who find backbends difficult. Eventually, as Walden's backbends shifted, she discovered their enormous physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. "Many people carry a lot of tension around the navel and diaphragm," she says. "When you begin to let go and experience freedom in your chest, you often feel emotions being released." This, Walden points out, is part of the beauty of backbends: Although it may be scary to arch back into the unknown, you gain confidence if you persevere. That's why, according to Walden, "backbends are powerful healers for low self-esteem, melancholy, or depression."
Make Each Pose a Mantra
Packed into Walden's understanding of that concise sutra are guidelines for practicing challenging backbends like Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose). First, as part of "earnestness," Walden recommends that students study the form of each pose in B.K.S. Iyengar's book Light on Yoga and then compare it with similar poses. Rajakapotasana, for example, obviously builds on Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Next, says Walden, "figure out where you need flexibility and where you need strength, and then work diligently on those actions in the easier poses." Rajakapotasana requires freedom at the front of the groin, mobility in your upper spine and chest, and strength in your arms, shoulders, and back extensor muscles, especially in the lower rib and kidney areas.
Another key, she says, is repetition. According to Walden, "practicing an asana is like chanting a mantra. You don't just say a mantra once: You repeat it over and over until its sound and meaning infuse your whole being."
However, Walden stresses that an earnest, devoted practice requires not only sustained effort and concentration but also patience and a quiet, spacious mind. "When you're doing a pose you find difficult, often your mind becomes contracted. It's important to keep your mind spacious so you don't do the pose aggressively. The form of the pose is important, but it's only a doorway. The true nectar lies within the form. As you learn to maintain the shape with less muscular effort, your mind becomes more silent and spacious, and you become much more sensitive and responsive to the movement of prana within."
Before You Begin
Because she considers Rajakapotasana an advanced backbend, Walden advises you to do a strong backbending practice before you begin the poses in this article. She recommends including at least Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose). If you're comfortable practicing Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), add that; also, if you like, you can begin with several Sun Salutations.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Use this pose to establish the key actions you'll need in Rajakapotasana. "When you're working toward a difficult pose," says Walden, "pick a few primary actions to focus on. If you carry those through a whole sequence, it's more likely that your mind will remain spacious and able to respond to the messages your body gives you, so you'll know when to back off and when and how to move forward."
Lie face-down, with your legs and feet together and your palms on the floor about even with your lower ribs. Next, build your foundation. As Walden puts it, "You need downward pressure from your feet and legs in order for your spine and chest to become light and rise up." Straighten your legs completely, extend out through all 10 toes, and press the tops of your feet down firmly. Without lifting your knees off the floor, lift the inner back edges of your thighs up and away from each other, creating internal rotation in your thighbones; then firmly move your tailbone toward the floor. These two actions will maintain spaciousness across your sacrum.
Press down through your palms, especially through the mounds of your thumbs and index fingers. Squeeze your elbows close to your body and move the center of your elbows back. These actions will begin to lift your shoulders away from the floor. Next broaden across your collarbones, roll your shoulders back, and move the lower tips of your shoulder blades toward each other and into your back ribs.
Reinforce the actions of your arms to help you coil your back ribs in and up and lift your torso higher. As you lift, however, closely observe your abdomen at your navel. Don't press this area forward; doing so will create compression in your lower back. Also, make sure you balance the vertical lift of your spine with a horizontal expansion of your chest. With each breath, feel as though you are expanding from the center of your chest to your periphery.
As you inhale, again lift from your lower ribs to your collarbones, release your trapezius muscles down your back, and reinforce the actions of the shoulder blades. Finally, take your head back by elongating your neck, drawing your chin in an arc toward the ceiling, and looking up and back.
The classic Bhujangasana pose is done with straight arms, but most people can work with more strength and precision if they keep the arms bent. If you straighten your arms before you have created tremendous mobility in your upper back, your shoulders will roll forward and you'll compress your lower back. For these reasons, continue to keep your arms at least slightly bent and work them strongly.
Remain in Bhujangasana for several breaths. Instead of "holding" the pose, breathe into it and live within it. With each breath, spread your awareness throughout the pose and reinforce its key actions. If your breath becomes uneven, if your mind feels contracted, or if you lose the integrity of your outer form, come down from the pose. Rest for a few breaths and then repeat it two or three more times.
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose, variation)
Lying face-down, bend your knees to 90 degrees, reach back and grasp your ankles, and point your toes to the sky. Internally rotate your thighs and take your tailbone toward the floor. Simultaneously press your shins back as you lengthen and lift your spine and torso. Coil the bottom of your back ribs in and up—but, as in Bhujangasana, protect your lower back by lifting from your upper sternum rather than pushing forward at your navel.
To reinforce the lift of your chest, release your shoulder blades down and draw their bottom tips toward each other and forward. If you can take your head up and back while still lengthening your neck, do so; if not, continue to look forward.
To further elongate your spine and open your upper chest, press your shins back more strongly. Then walk your hands an inch or two down your shins toward your knees and reinforce all your grounding and lifting actions. After a breath or two, see if you can again move the hands lower. Eventually, you may be able to take your hands all the way down to your knees.
Concentrate on spreading your chest horizontally even as you strongly lift your spine vertically. Walden says that creating the horizontal opening helps keep your mind calm and spacious and balances the strong vertical lift that stimulates your mind. As you breathe within the pose, allow your awareness to percolate through your whole body, scanning for actions you can skillfully intensify and unnecessary tensions you can gently release. After several breaths, come down. Rest for a moment, and then repeat the pose two or three more times.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose II, variation)
Come to a wall and have two blocks within easy reach. Kneel so that your right shin extends straight up the wall. Place your left leg in a lunge, with your shin perpendicular to the floor. (This version is not pictured.) Interlacing your fingers, place your palms on your left knee. Your hips will be fairly close to the wall.
Now establish your connection to the earth. Press firmly through the inner edge of your left foot and move your tailbone in and down. Also move your right outer thigh and left outer hip down and squeeze both your outer hips in toward your midline. All these actions help square and level your hips, alignments that protect your sacroiliac joints.
Maintaining these stabilizing actions, begin to move the center of your right thigh toward the floor while simultaneously lifting your whole spine. (Keep your left foot where it is, letting your left knee bend more deeply and move farther away from the wall.) At the same time, magnify the rising energy of your spine by pushing your hands firmly against your left knee. As in Bhujangasana and Dhanurasana, move your waist and lower ribs in and up, but resist the urge to push forward in your navel area. Drawing your shoulders back, lift the center of your chest.
To go further into the pose, place your blocks on the floor just in front of your pelvis, shoulder-width apart, and then put your palms on your blocks and straighten your arms. As you exhale completely, press strongly down through your palms. As you inhale, lift your side waist, side ribs, and chest to bring your spine first toward vertical and then into a slight backbend. If your spine is at least at vertical, lengthen your neck and move your chin up and back; otherwise, maintain your neck as a neutral extension of your spine. After a few breaths, come out of the pose and repeat it on the other side.
If you have difficulty bringing your spine to vertical, welcome to the club; like most of us, your groin and quadriceps muscles are probably a bit tight. Here's where repetition can be especially valuable. Practice the pose several times on each side. Each time, you'll probably find that your thigh descends just a little bit lower and your spine lifts just a little bit higher. Even if the amount of change is small, you'll be able to witness the process of tranformation and know that the full pose is indeed within your reach.
Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose, variation)
Place a chair about three feet from a wall. With your hands on the chair seat, place your knees on the floor at the wall, no more than hip-width apart, so that your shins and feet point straight up the wall.
As you begin to release your thighs slowly toward the floor, rotate them internally, press your shins and feet back against the wall, and firmly move your tailbone down and in. (If you feel pain in your lower back, place a rolled blanket or firm bolster under the front of the thighs, move the chair a bit farther from the wall, or try doing both.)
Next, place your forearms and palms on the chair seat, shoulder-width apart. Continue to release your thighs toward the floor and press down firmly with your palms and the whole length of both forearms. Use the grounding of your arms to help lift your spine, your side ribs, and your chest. Broaden across your collarbones, roll your shoulders back, draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades together and firmly into your back ribs, and coil the bottom back ribs forward and up.
To arch your upper back more deeply, move your thoracic spine in toward your chest, strongly lifting your sternum and bringing it forward. Lengthen your neck long as you look up and back, lifting your chin in an arc up toward the sky and back toward your feet. At the same time, use your hamstrings to draw your feet toward your head.
As you move deeper into the pose, Walden says, you need a strong sense of communication between three main actions: arching the upper spine, neck, and head; bringing the feet in; and supporting the lift of the upper body by pressing down through the hands.
If this version came easily the first time, try using blocks as props rather than a chair. Position your blocks about where you placed the front pair of chair legs; you may need to experiment a bit to find just the right spot.
Move to this Kapotasana variation only if you felt a genuine sense of freedom in your spine in the previous version. Although you will go through almost identical actions, this variation does demand a significant step up in flexibility. Listen to the messages your body gives you. Just as you wouldn't move into a long tongue-twisting mantra without effortlessly mastering a simpler one first, so you should not ask your body for more than it's able to deliver. Walden says that Iyengar often reminds students, "You can't force the impossible, even on a willing body."
Walden suggests that you think of each of the poses in this sequence as homework that prepares you for your next lesson. She compares asana practice to digging a well. Every time you work with an action, you dig a little deeper. The next time you practice, you'll have a slightly greater store of strength, flexibility, and endurance. Gradually, a pose that once demanded more than you had in your reservoir will bubble up effortlessly.
Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose)
Walden cautions that you should move on to the full, unpropped pose only when your spine rises fluidly and freely in the previous version. This may take months of steady practice—or perhaps, she jokes, even a lifetime. But achieving full Rajakapotasana isn't really the point; each pose is simply a challenge that brings awareness to parts of the body and mind that are dull or unexplored.
"Joy and light are always there inside us," says Walden, "but sometimes we obscure them by being too goal oriented and working too aggressively." To avoid those pitfalls, she says, tune in to and adjust your pose as though you were a conductor leading a symphony orchestra. Just as creating a buoyant, shimmering ensemble sound requires precisely balancing all the instruments, so moving as fully as you can into a powerful pose like Rajakapotasana requires a heightened awareness and a sensitive, subtle calibrating and balancing of all your actions.
By now you know all the basic actions of the pose. Lie face-down and bend your knees to at least 90 degrees. Create your foundation: Internally rotate your thighs, move your tailbone in and down, and press down firmly through your thighs. Then, keeping your pubic bone on the ground, press into your palms and lengthen and lift your torso and spine. Coil your lower back ribs in and up, raise your side ribs and chest, open across your collarbones, and take your shoulders back.
According to Walden, there's no secret to bringing your feet and head together. "Over time, you begin to recognize the internal rhythm of the pose. You notice that strengthening the tailbone action creates an echoing deeper arch of the upper back, neck, and head. You experiment with intensifying certain actions—you press your palms down a little more or lift your chest a little more. You wait, breathe into that opening, wait there, go a little further... and one day, your head will magically rest on your feet without any effort."
Walden is partly joking, partly serious, when she speaks of effortless magic. As someone who has done asana every day for almost 30 years, she knows that such magic is real—but that it arrives only if you prepare the way through a constant and deeply internal devoted practice.
Todd Jones is a former senior editor of Yoga Journal. Patricia Walden, who has studied and taught Iyengar Yoga for more than 25 years, is a cofounder of the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is featured in numerous yoga videos and co-wrote The Woman's Book of Yoga & Health.