Take it Back
When you "do" yoga, it's called practice. The yogic notion of practicing is different from the type of practice you do when you rehearse for a special event like a dance performance, a marathon, or a speech. In those cases, there is a specific goal, and when you get to a certain point, there's no need for more practice. But the practice of yoga—defined as both a state of being and a codified method of physical postures designed to create radiant health—is never finished; it's a process.
You have probably already experienced your asana practice as a process of evolution—you may have become less emotionally reactive, stronger, more stable and flexible. This process is nonlinear: Some days you feel you're making headway, while other days you may just feel tired. But over time, you've probably noticed consistent progress in a positive direction.The state of being we call yoga is also a process. Although all the masters of yoga agree that we are born inherently free, liberated, and blissful, they also agree that this freedom is buried beneath our everyday habits and thought patterns. To rediscover your inner freedom, you must engage in the process of transformation by cultivating compassion, curiosity, and contentment and, ironically, by letting go of the results.
It's not that you shouldn't care about the results of your efforts, but in yoga—as in life—there are no guarantees. You can't predict if you will ever be able to stand on your head or abide in a state of wakeful compassion. But you can do two things now, today: You can, first, cultivate appreciation for each moment of your unfolding process and, second, create the onditions for the desired results to arise.
A dropback—the term commonly used to describe the transitional movement of falling backward in space between Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)—is perfect for exploring the notion of process in yoga because the "pose" itself is a process. The dropping-back action is bracketed between precise beginning and end points, but the middle part is where the real juice is. This "in between" is where you need to stay alert as well as relaxed, loose yet organized, open to possibility yet clear about the direction you are heading. When you can do that, you are both practicing and being yoga.
Since the transitional process of dropping back differs from a stationary pose, you'll need some organizing principles. First, how do you know if you are ready to begin practicing dropbacks? If you can do Urdhva Dhanurasana with straight arms, you are ready. If you can't, practice the first three poses presented here, and then practice Urdhva Dhanurasana. Second, ask yourself, "Where am I going?" Try to let go of a specific goal and engage in the process by making it your intention to move toward the ability to drop back. And finally, create the conditions for your dropback to happen by working with the following sequence. It's designed to imprint certain physical relationships and movements in your muscle memory that will support the process of dropping back.
Before You Begin
To warm up for dropbacks, begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Do several rounds of Cat-Cow Pose, coordinating each movement with your breath. From there, do three to five rounds of Sun Salutations A and B to generate heat throughout your entire body. Then try the following sequence to open the hips and shoulders. Take five breaths in each pose. Begin on your right side with Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved Chair Pose), then move into Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). Bring your left knee to the floor, and reach your arms up for Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge). Bring your fingertips to the ground and tuck your left knee behind your right to come into Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose). Come into the full pose by clasping your hands behind your back. After several breaths, bring your hands into Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal), fold forward, and twist to the right.
After five deep breaths, roll forward onto your hands and come into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Exhale and come into Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), inhale into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), then exhale back into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Stay for five breaths, then jump forward and do this sequence on your left.
Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose)
Once your body feels warm and your breath is deep, begin the practice of dropping back by letting go into the earth. Mother Earth does not discriminate. She invites everyone to rest on her. With that reminder to inspire your confidence, begin this pose.
You will need a bolster, two or three blankets, and a block. Place a bolster lengthwise on your mat. Stack the block on top of the middle of the bolster, horizontally. Take one blanket and fold it like an accordion so that it's about four inches wide. Drape it over the block with the folded edge about two inches from the bottom edge of the bolster.
Sit in Virasana with your buttocks just in front of the bolster. Your sitting bones may or may not touch the floor. When you come into Supta Virasana, the block should be positioned under the bottom of your shoulder blades. Put the block in the correct place before reclining all the way back. When you are fully reclined, use your hands to smooth the top of your buttocks away from your lower back, creating length and space in the sacrum area.
If your neck feels strain, tuck the top end of your blanket underneath itself to create more neck support. If that's still not enough support, place another folded blanket under the base of your skull. If your ankles or the tops of your feet hurt, sit up and place a folded blanket in front of the bolster. Come back into the pose, this time with your shins on the blanket, but your feet and ankles off the blanket.
In this open-hearted position, your arms will drape down toward the floor. If this pulls too much on your chest, you can place a cushion under each forearm. Otherwise, try to stay here and let go into the big opening of the upper chest and collarbone area. In this pose you also open your belly, hip flexors, thighs, and ankles, which you'll need to do for your big backbend later. Become familiar with the sensation of your arms dropping down alongside your body, a position that will become important later on. Close your eyes and stay for 20 to 30 breaths. Direct your breath toward the back of your lungs.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
You probably practice this pose often. This time, however, focus on how the strength and the connection of your inner thighs support the curve of your spine and the opening of your chest. Slowly sit up. Next, shift onto your hands and knees, moving symmetrically as you exhale into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Strongly engage your arms and legs, but allow your head to dangle freely.
After taking a few breaths, place a block between your thighs. As the block helps you become more aware of your legs, ask yourself, "Are my legs either internally or externally rotated?" Perhaps your answer is yes. Or maybe it's no! In either case you would be correct: The legs are in a neutral alignment—just as they would be in Tadasana—which is created though a balance of inward-and-outward-moving energy.
Sensitively walk your hands forward as if you were doing a hand-walking meditation. Let this be a sensuous activity, and feel every single vertebra unfold as you slowly ripple your spine. Try to notice the very moment that Downward-Facing Dog becomes Plank Pose, and keep walking your hands forward until Plank turns into Upward-Facing Dog. Take your time with this transition. As you shift forward, imagine that your best friend is behind you and gently but firmly tugging the block backward so that when you arrive in Upward-Facing Dog, your legs are very active. As you press your thighs up, lightly engage your buttock muscles and burrow your tailbone down into your body.
Sometimes when we think of backbending, we focus all of our energy on the curve of the spine. But the legs play a vital role in backbends. To refine the pose, press your palms and the tops of your feet down. From that downward action, lift the back of the thighs and the sternum up. Make sure not to lift your shoulders.
Stay here for a breath or two, again finding breath in the back of the lungs. If you continue to imagine your friend tugging your block back, you might discover that the pose becomes lighter and requires less effort than you thought, especially in the arms.
On your next exhalation, lift your thighs so much that they draw you back into Downward Dog. Take your time and be sensitive to how the legs initiate this transition. Alternate between Upward Dog and Downward Dog three or four times, concentrating on the support of the legs, the easy opening of the chest, the natural gaze, and the way each tiny movement leads to the next.
Rest for five breaths in Balasana (Child's Pose), and then place your mat at the wall.
Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), variation
Remember the feeling of the block between your thighs in Upward Dog? You did the block exercise to create a tactile experience of the inner thighs engaging. To do Forearm Balance and dropbacks, you need energetic support running down into the earth and up along your spine. The conduit for this support is the inner thighs.
Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your feet pressing into a wall. Mark where your knees are and then place your elbows there. Come into Downward Dog on your forearms. Make sure that your elbows are directly below your shoulders and that your hands are in line with your elbows. If your hands tend to move toward each other, place a block on the floor between them. Lift your right leg (or your left, if that's your dominant leg), initiating the action from the very top of your thigh, not your foot. Bend your other leg. Simultaneously, kick your right leg and hop off your left leg to come up to the wall. Find the inner thigh connection again by hugging your left and right thighs together.
Once you contact the wall, flex your feet and walk your heels up the wall to create length in your back. Now bend your legs and place your feet flat on the wall. Imagine the block is between your legs, or get your yoga buddy to put a block there for you. Press your feet into the wall, your forearms into the mat. Move your inner thighs toward the wall as you draw your tailbone toward your heels. Let your head dangle or gaze at the space between your hands. Try to stay here for five full breaths.
Notice how your Pincha Mayurasana feels integrated when you strongly engage your legs and root the forearms into the earth. Come down and rest in Child's Pose. Repeat Pincha Mayurasana, kicking up with the other leg.
Dropping Back at the Wall
You are ready to try a dropback at the wall. Lie down on your back with your head at the wall. Bend your legs, then place your feet on the floor and your hands next to your ears, as wide apart as your shoulders. This is your setup for Urdhva Dhanurasana.
On an inhalation, simultaneously press your hands and feet down and lift your bellybutton up to arrive in Urdhva Dhanurasana. If your arms are straight, you are ready to move on. Walk your feet a few inches toward your hands. Then place one hand on the wall and push into it. Place your other hand on the wall. As with the hand-walking meditation you practiced earlier, sensitively but firmly walk your hands up the wall. Take your time and feel both feet connected to the earth.
When you are almost all the way up you might get nervous and want to lift your head or twist. Stay calm, keep your head back, and direct your inner thighs toward the wall. This backward action of the thighs, combined with the downward action of the feet, will bring your pelvis over your legs and help you ripple up through your spine into Tadasana.
If these actions felt OK, repeat them a few times to get used to how they relate to each other. When you are ready, you can go back down, dropping back at the wall. To do that, walk up the wall again, and when you get all the way up, don't move your feet. This is the right distance for you to go back down. The gap between you and the wall might look huge, but this is where your faith comes in. You just walked up and that's where your feet were, so they are in exactly the right place to go back down, too. Trust that.
From Tadasana, fold your palms together with your thumbs on your chin. Lift your chest and ribs up and away from your pelvis as much as you can. Imagine that you are going to touch the ceiling with your sternum. Think of going up, up, up! rather than back. Also, keep your legs straight for as long as you possibly can. Keep lifting your chest as you press your thighs back toward the wall. When you feel you can't go back any further, drop your arms to your sides. They will naturally swing back into place and find the wall. It might not seem as if your hands will get to the wall in time, but they will. The arms will fall back and open up, and your strong hands will catch you. Then you can walk down the wall, tuck your chin into your chest, come down, and rest.
Dropping back away from the wall is the same, except...no wall! To develop the confidence to do this, practice dropping back at the wall for as long as you want. Falling back into space takes a lot of faith. Work at the wall with clarity and discipline. Keep your eyes wide open. Make sure your feet and legs stay in Tadasana-like alignment, breathe into your back body, and feel a connection between the earth and your feet. That connection is what will help you soar up and back into your backbend.
Begin weaning yourself off the wall by stepping forward an inch or two. As you drop back, notice how you will backbend just a bit more deeply before your hands come into contact with the wall. If you feel confident, step further from the wall. Eventually, you may find that you can step away from the wall altogether. Start by having a partner nearby as a security blanket. Establish your firm and organized Tadasana with your feet slightly wider than your hips and your palms together, thumbs at your chin.
Lift your chest but don't let your head go back until you absolutely can't look forward any more. Keep your legs straight! Press your thigh bones back, back, back, even though your pelvis is moving forward in space—this will help keep you balanced. There are always oppositional actions in yoga, and this is a perfect example. As the pelvis moves forward horizontally, the weight of the head can drop back as a counterbalance. The thighs will have to go with the pelvis a bit, but energetically the thighs do not go forward. If both the thighs and the pelvis move forward, there is no tension, no relationship, no yoga. There is just collapsing energy that does not support the spine and leads to pain and injury in the lower back. In order for the spine to be soft and supple, your legs must be strong and stable. If the legs get soft, the spine will harden, making it difficult to bend.
When you can't bend back any more with straight legs, drop your arms down by your sides and toward the floor. Your legs will start to bend at this point, and your strong arms will catch you as you arrive in Urdhva Dhanurasana. There will probably be a moment when you feel that you are hanging out in space. Your hands won't be on the floor yet, and you will be inside out and upside down. The strength and grounding of the legs will help slow down the process, but it still happens pretty fast.
Let's face it—you might not do a dropback for years! But you've created the causes and conditions for it to happen by connecting to the earth while opening your chest, using the strength of your legs to allow for suppleness in your spine, and using the wall to help you establish a clear pathway for the action of dropping back.
Now your job is—you guessed it—to practice, practice, practice. As you do, can you be curious and mindful about that process? It won't be yoga practice if you do it by rote. The yoga masters say that the mind and body must participate together in every moment of the process in order for us to be in a state of yoga.
In other words, when you can pay close attention to your experience as it unfolds, with each breath, each thought, each asana, and each transition—then you will be in a state of yoga. Don't try to hold on to that state, either; let it be a moment of change, an opening, a transformation.
A longtime hatha yoga and Tibetan Buddhism practitioner, Cyndi Lee created OM Yoga in 1998. She has written several books and teaches around the world. For more information, visit omyoga.com.