Try a propped version of the pose in which you place two blocks on their longer, narrow edges where your head and shoulder blades will rest.
From Staff Pose, slowly lower onto the blocks. (Make sure the block under your shoulder blades isn’t touching your ribs below your shoulder blades.) In this position, you can let your feet fall open, as if you were taking Savasana (Corpse Pose). From here, externally rotate your arms so your palms face up. Let your shoulders drape off the block. Having both blocks at the same height will reduce strain or overstretching of the neck. Relax your face, throat, and jaw.
If you feel too much of a stretch between your shoulder blades...
Try using a blanket.
Fold it in half lengthwise, and then roll the folded side over one or two times. Lie on the blanket just as you did with the block, placing the blanket roll along the lower edges of your shoulder blades. Your head can rest on the unfolded part of the blanket. This will give you a nice chest and shoulder opener—one that’s less intense than the other versions. Let your feet fall open as you relax.
If your low back feels congested or your groins and hips are getting overstretched...
Try the propped version in the first slide, but with a different leg position.
Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor, mat-width apart. Let your toes turn in slightly and your knees fall together. This position is called Constructive Rest and will widen the sacrum. You can also experiment with different block heights under your head, lowering the block to receive more of a neck stretch and chest opener.
The buoyancy that lifts our hearts and our moods when we practice backbends needs to be balanced with a downward-moving energy to help us stay rooted and safe. This dual action is how you find the fullness of yoga in any pose; when we experience it in backbends like Camatkarasana (Wild Thing)—the final pose in this sequence—we begin to understand what Buddhist teachings call the “ground of our existence,” or simply put: joy and contentment.
Instead of grasping for that perfect backbend, allow the earth to support you. Actually feel the parts of you that are touching the ground, along with the parts of you that are reaching up. This is the path to embodying contentment and the base from which joy grows. Without contentment, or a sense of soft grounding, you can end up with over-percolated energy instead of genuine, uplifted joy. Without the buoyancy of joy, contentment can feel flat or dull.
Teacher and model Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism. Founder of New York City’s OM Yoga Center (1998–2012), she now owns Yoga Goodness Studio in central Virginia and teaches workshops and trainings worldwide. Author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind, Lee regularly writes for Yoga Journal, Real Simple, Lion’s Roar, and other magazines. She holds an MFA in dance from the University of California, Irvine, is a longtime student of Gelek Rimpoche, and is currently training for ordination as a Zen Buddhist chaplain. Learn more at cyndilee.com.