Whether you live in the city or the country, are rich or poor, are married or single, are male or female, are gay or straight, grow your own vegetables or shop at the supermarket, almost everything you do involves bending slightly forward. Think about your average day. Eating breakfast, pumping gas, carrying kids, cooking, driving, e-mailing, bathing, even sleeping: In all of these activities, your arms are in front of you and your spine and shoulders tend to be somewhat rounded forward.
All of this bending forward doesn't have to be a bad thing. It is, after all, the way our bodies were designed to work. But over the years, the wear and tear caused by our predominantly forward-bending lives usually takes its toll.
As you probably know, there are four basic curves in the spine. The cervical curve, which is located in the neck, and the lumbar curve, in the lower back, naturally arch toward the front of the body. The curve of the sacrum, formed by the fused vertebrae at the base of the spine, and the thoracic curve, in the midback, naturally round toward the back of the body. But as a result of our species's predisposition to bending forward, the cervical and lumbar curves tend to decrease and the thoracic curve tends to increase over the years.
The next time you find yourself in a crowd, take a look at people in profile. You will see many a person whose head droops forward in front of the neck and shoulders, rather than being centered on top of an erect spine; most often, the middle and upper back also round forward and the shoulders slope down into the chest. Once you start looking, you'll be astonished at the percentage of spinal columns that are out of whack.
Fortunately, yoga is a magnificent antidote to our tendency to slump. Yoga teaches us that a strong, flexible, and healthy spine is important for well-being and longevity, and even helpful to spiritual growth. On the most basic level, when our spinal curves are healthy, we're less likely to be distracted by fatigue, discomfort, and pain. We're more likely to be alert and lively, and we're also more likely to have energy and attention to direct toward generosity, compassion, and kindness. On more subtle levels, ancient yoga lore holds that proper alignment and opening of the energy channels along the spine are a key to our spiritual evolution.
Since proper spinal alignment is such a significant part of yoga, it's important for our asana practice to include postures that counteract our habitual forward bending. In other words, it's important to do backbends.
The Backbending Adventure
Forward bending is familiar; we do it over and over every day. So while forward bending in yoga may be uncomfortable if we have tight hips or hamstrings, it generally isn't scary. Bending backward, on the other hand, isn't so familiar. It can be a little frightening and uncomfortable for many of us. It's a bit of an adventure.
When we bend backward, we're pushing the envelope. Backbending is leaning back into the void, diving into the unseen, terrifying world of the unknown. To backbend, we have to let go of the familiar. We have to change and evolve, whether we really want to or not. So not only does a backbend like this column's featured posture, Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana (One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), act as physical therapy to correct our biomechanical tendencies, but it also challenges our sense of comfort. To go further into the backbend, we have to explore our edge. Instead of running away from our discomfort, we have to lean into it and get to know it.
The postures I have chosen to lead up to Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana will help us reverse our forward-bending habit and prepare to voyage into the unknown. The four preliminary postures we will explore are Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), Sirsasana (Headstand), and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose). All of these poses stretch and open the front of the body—especially the thighs, chest, and shoulders—readying us for the adventure of Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana.
Before practicing these asanas, spend 10 or 15 minutes warming up. If you are familiar with Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) and the energetic locks Mula Bandha (Root Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), I suggest you use them throughout your practice of this sequence. If you're not familiar with them, simply breathe in the manner prescribed by your teachers or tradition.
A Heroic Start(Figure 1)
Appropriately, we'll start our adventure with Supta Virasana, or Reclining Hero Pose, which opens the front of the thighs and groins. To come into the pose, kneel on the floor and then sit back on your feet. Lift your hips off your feet so you can separate the feet just wide enough to create a space for your buttocks. Then bring your sitting bones to the floor.
As you practice Supta Virasana, keep your thighs parallel or positioned so the knees are closer together than the upper thighs. Rotating the thighs internally will help you maintain this position. Also, to make certain that the knees are safely aligned, it is critically important to keep your heels pointing straight up. There is a tendency in folks with tight ankles or hips to let the feet splay out to the side. Don't let this happen; it puts unhealthy stress on the medial collateral ligament, which runs along the inside edge of the knee.
Once your sitting bones contact the floor, place your palms on the floor behind you and lean back. Move evenly, rather than lowering first on one side and then on the other. And move slowly; for most people, the quadriceps and hip flexors need to be patiently encouraged into this stretch. As your quads and groins open, bend your arms more deeply and come onto your forearms and elbows. Pause here, lifting your pelvis enough to tuck your tailbone and buttocks flesh toward your knees. If you can lower farther without exaggerating the arch of the lower back, come into the full pose, lying flat. Except for the normal arches of the lower spine and neck, the whole back and the back of the head should rest on the floor, with the spine long and the muscles around it soft and released. If you can't lower yourself that far, stay up on your forearms and elbows, inching back as your quadriceps and groins lengthen. Whichever position you're in, focus on your breathing and soften your lower ribs toward the floor. Over time, work up to holding this posture for several minutes.
Tap into Your Strength(Figure 2)
With our next posture, Urdhva Dhanurasana, we step up the intensity of our backbending. Now we are stretching not only the thighs and groins but also the upper back and shoulders. Although this is a powerful posture, you don't need a lot of shoulder strength to push up into it. But you do need a great deal of shoulder flexibility. I have seen incredibly strong and fit folks who can't even get the head off the ground when they begin this work; they need a team of four people to help lift and lengthen them into the beginning phases of the pose. The problem isn't that they lack the strength to lift into the posture; it's that they don't have the necessary range of motion in the shoulders to fully tap into their strength.
To come into the pose, lie flat on your back. Bring your feet up toward your buttocks, placing them flat on the floor about hip width apart and parallel to each other. Almost everyone has a strong tendency to turn the toes out as they press up into the pose, so pause here, root the feet strongly, and make a commitment to keep them parallel throughout the pose.
Place your hands beside your ears, palms down, with your fingers pointing toward your feet, and draw your elbows in toward each other. On an exhalation, press down through your hands and feet and lift your pelvis, torso, and head high enough so you can come onto the crown of your head. Take a breath here. As in Supta Virasana, create a subtle inward rotation of the thighs and make sure your knees don't splay out to the sides. The thighs should remain parallel, with the knees hip width apart.
On your next exhalation, press firmly down through your arms and legs and lift your torso into a full backbend. Push strongly through your hands to straighten your arms completely; also ground strongly through your feet, especially through the heels, and gently lift your tailbone and draw it toward your knees. Hold for five to 10 breaths. Then exhale and gently lower back down onto your back, tucking your chin gently toward your chest as you come to the floor. Repeat the pose at least two more times.
If you feel an uncomfortable compression in your lower back in Urdhva Dhanurasana, come down and try the pose with your feet a little farther away from your buttocks. If your shoulders are very tight, your lower back may be overarching in the pose to compensate for that restriction, and a longer stance may prevent this from happening.
All postures influence the chakras, the body's energy centers, but the strong backward curve of the body in Urdhva Dhanurasana especially awakens and inspires all the major chakras, from the muladhara (root) chakra at the perineum to the sahasrara (thousandfold) chakra at the crown of the head. The pose has an especially vibrant effect on the anahata (heart) chakra (literally, "wheel of the unstruck sound"), at the center of the chest. The big opening of the upper thoracic spine in backbends like Urdhva Dhanurasana and Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana fuels the emotional fire of our practice, burning impurities and opening and expanding the heart center. As yoga philosophy tells us, this opening can deepen our sensitivity to the world and help us develop an understanding of and compassion for all life everywhere.
Turning Topsy-Turvy(Figure 3)
Our next pose, Sirsasana, continues the work of venturing into relatively unfamiliar territory. After all, even if you practice inversions every day, you still spend 98 percent of your waking life right side up! Of course, Sirsasana also helps strengthen and open the shoulders, and lets you rehearse a position very similar to the one you'll use in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana and Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana.
A word of caution before we begin: Although Sirsasana has long been considered one of the most beneficial yoga postures, it also has the potential to be very dangerous for the neck. It shouldn't be practiced by beginners, and it needs to be learned from a competent teacher.
When I first learned Sirsasana, my instructor would not let me use a wall for support or even come into the pose with bent knees. I had to show him I could lift my feet a few inches off the floor in Headstand position and hold them there for 50 breaths before he would let me go farther. I'm not saying you must do that—many of you have probably already learned other valid ways to approach Sirsasana—but I am going to suggest that you proceed mindfully. There is nothing to be gained but injury by throwing yourself up into the posture in front of a wall, depending on it to catch you. It's important to build a strong and properly aligned upper body before you start learning Sirsasana, so you can come into and out of it with control
—in other words, without literally risking your neck.
If you're relatively new to Sirsasana, you should take the bulk of your weight on your arms; only as the neck muscles gradually become stronger and you start practicing the more advanced arm positions should more weight come onto the head.
To set up for Sirsasana, come onto your hands and knees. Interlacing your fingers, place your forearms on the floor; if you're practicing on a hard floor, you may want to double up a mat as a cushion for your forearms. Make sure your elbows are shoulder width apart. This positioning is critical: If your elbows splay too far out, you won't be able to use your arm and shoulder strength to full effect, the pose will be unsteady, and you'll put too much weight on your neck.
You may practice Sirsasana with your palms pressed together—in which case you'll bring the crown of the head to the floor so the skull is cradled by the forearms—or with the heels of your hands separated, so the palms and fingers cup the back of the skull. Either position is correct, so experiment to see which one allows you to feel the strongest and most balanced in the pose. Whichever position you prefer, it's crucial to keep your wrists perpendicular to the ground, making sure they don't roll out to the sides.
Now that you have your head and arms in position, come up on your toes and slowly walk them in toward your elbows. Ground strongly through your elbows and wrists, lift your shoulder blades away from your ears, and raise your hips up toward the ceiling, making your back as straight and long as you can.
To lift your feet, you'll have to let your hips move a little farther back in space than if they were on a plumb line that falls directly through your head. Walk your toes in until they feel light on the ground. Then, on an exhalation, press into the forearms, and—still moving the shoulder blades away from the ears—lift the toes off the ground. Slowly, with control, raise the legs toward vertical.
As the legs come close to vertical, bring the hips forward so they again stack directly over the shoulders. If you're not flexible or strong enough to lift with straight legs, walk the feet in as far as you can and bend the knees, bringing them in toward your chest. Then, pressing into the forearms and lifting the shoulder blades, raise the feet and slowly extend them toward the ceiling. Don't throw the legs up into the air, hoping you'll find balance somewhere along the way. Maintain control and balance in every moment.
As you hold the posture, continue to press your elbows and wrists into the floor. Many people, especially if they're accustomed to practicing Sirsasana with their feet on the wall, let their feet come too far back behind them and don't place enough weight on the elbows. This throws the body into an overarched, banana-shaped position. When you press firmly into the elbows and bring more weight onto them, you shift weight toward the front of your body, which takes the banana curve out of the back. It also can allay your fear of falling—and lower the chance of that actually happening.
Keep your legs firm and reaching up toward the ceiling, especially along the inner edges of the legs and feet. Be mindful not to jut the lower ribs forward or arch the lower back beyond its natural curve. The pose should feel almost as if you have a very slight and subtle pike position at the hips. Drawing the belly slightly in, as in Uddiyana Bandha, and drawing the perineum slightly in, as in Mula Bandha, can help you maintain correct alignment. Performing all of these actions, hold Sirsasana for 10 to 50 breaths.
To come out of the pose, descend on an exhalation. Just as when you were coming up into Sirsasana, you need to be extra careful that your shoulders don't scrunch up toward your ears. To prevent this, press firmly through your forearms and lift your shoulder blades toward your hips. If you came up with bent legs, bend them again to come down; if you went up with your legs straight, try to come down the same way. In either case, as you lower your legs, your hips need to counterbalance back a bit, just as they did when you were lifting your legs on the way up. Once your feet reach the floor, come directly into Balasana (Child's Pose) and hold it for five to 10 breaths to allow your body to recover from the inversion.
Bending Over Backward(Figure 4)
Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana is a blend of Sirsasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. As such, it prepares us for the truly difficult times in our lives, when we feel not only turned upside down but bent over backward as well.
You can come into Dwi Pada from either Sirsasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana, but the former approach is very tricky and should be attempted only under the watchful eye of a competent teacher. The easier and safer method is to come into the posture from Urdhva Dhanurasana.
Come into Urdhva Dhanurasana, using all the pointers covered earlier, and hold it for a breath or two to stretch your shoulders, chest, groins, and belly. Then bend your elbows and, exhaling, lower yourself down to place the crown of your head on the floor—exactly the same position you used on the way up into the pose. Next, lower your forearms one at a time into
Sirsasana position alongside your head: Interlace the hands, keeping the wrists perpendicular to the floor and the elbows not wider than shoulder width apart.
There's no doubt that Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana demands a huge opening from your shoulders. To do the pose safely and receive its benefits, you must keep both forearms firmly grounded, keep your elbows at shoulder width, lift your shoulder blades up away from your ears, and avoid a feeling of compression in your lower back. If you can't accomplish all this, you would probably do better to continue working in Urdhva Dhanurasana until you achieve more opening in the shoulders. When you can straighten your arms completely and comfortably in Urdhva Dhanurasana, you'll be well on the way to Dwi Pada.
Once your head and arms are comfortably in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana position, you can begin working toward the full expression of the pose. Carefully walk your feet out and toward your midline until both legs are straight and the inner edges of your feet are touching. Continue to press strongly through your forearms and feet in order to avoid straining the neck and lower back. Lift your shoulder blades toward your hips and your sternum toward your chin. Your breath will necessarily be a bit shallow in this pose, but make sure it is smooth and even and that you haven't succumbed to the tendency to hold your breath.
Hold Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana for five to 10 breaths. Then, on an inhalation, walk the feet back toward the buttocks and separate the feet to hip width. Bring the hands back to Urdhva Dhanurasana position on the floor alongside the ears, then lift back up into that pose. On an exhalation, gently lower onto your back, tucking your chin a bit toward your chest as you gently lower your head, torso, and hips to the floor.
Joy and Freedom(Figure 5)
Once you have developed the strength to hold Dwi Pada for 10 breaths, you most likely will be ready for our final posture, Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana. It is almost exactly the same as Dwi Pada, except it requires you to lift one leg straight up toward the ceiling and support the lower part of the posture with one leg instead of two. Obviously, the one-legged version demands a bit more strength in the arms and in the supporting leg than does the two-legged pose.
To come into Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana from the previous posture, walk the right foot a bit back toward the hips and center the left foot on the midline of your body. Then shift your weight to your left leg and foot. Pressing strongly into your supporting leg and your arms, slowly lift the right leg off the floor. Engage the full strength of the lifted leg, pressing the right foot up toward the sky and pushing out through the heel and the ball of the foot. Try to keep the pelvis level from side to side, neither dropping the hip of the lifted leg down toward the ground nor hiking it up toward the ceiling. Take five to 10 breaths in the pose and then, on an exhalation, lower the right leg and repeat the pose on the other side. After another five to 10 breaths, come back into Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, press back up into Urdhva Dhanurasana, and then lower back down to rest on your back.
Like most yoga poses, Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana takes strength, flexibility, and focus. And more so than with many poses, mastery of this one requires a good deal of time and effort. Most of us can achieve the beautiful actions of this asana only by practicing regularly and earnestly for months or years. There are no magical potions or secrets; it takes hard work. But the extraordinary benefits of backbends like Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana make them well worth the energy we invest in them. They don't just bring agility and longevity to our spine and shoulders, counteracting the tendency of the upper back to round as we age. As we use them to explore the unknown, they bring joy and freedom to our soul as well.