Backbends can be a glorious experience—that is if you like backbends.
The good news: Even if you despise backbends, there's hope! Generally the backbending you do in a normal flow class is in poses like Bridge, Camel, Bow, and Wheel. Aside from those heavy hitters (great poses all, by the way) we don't see many other backbends in a flow class, especially not ones with the shoulder fully revolved.
The upper body rotation required in this week's Challenge Pose is the same that you'll find in King Dancer, One-Footed King Pigeon, and Big-Toe Bow pose. It isn't the easiest rotation in the world (especially if you get tight in your upper back or psoas) so they're often avoided. The problem here is that these poses, when done with patience and props, often get us on the highway to flexibility and space! There's nothing wrong with using plenty of props. For this pose, have a strap and a set of blocks handy. And take your time! Just recognized that you ARE flexible and you will find that aaaaaahhhhh moment in a backbend when you take your time, listen to your body, and show up doing your best.
This backbend requires a ton of psoas flexibility so we need to give some TLC here. Lie on your belly and prop up onto your forearms. Keeping your legs hip-width apart, bend your left knee. Gaze over your left shoulder and reach back with the same hand to grab your foot. If you feel intense sensation you'll stay here and be content with holding your foot. If you can go deeper, slowly bend your elbow and bring your left foot closer to the ground. If you can do the full rotation, place the palm of your hand right above your toes on the top of your foot. Point your thumb out like you're hitchhiking and pivot the palm until the fingers point in the same direction as your toes and your elbow points toward the ceiling. Push your toes into your hand and your hand into your toes. Relax your buns. Push down into your right elbow to elevate your chest as you roll your right shoulder head back to encourage the backbend. Press all right toes into the mat and keep that leg straight. Slowly release after about 8 breaths and switch sides.
From Downward-Facing Dog, step your right foot in between your hands and drop your left knee down to the ground. Go for a wider lunge, either taking your front foot forward or wiggling your rear knee back a bit so that your pelvis is lunging toward the ground. Interlace your fingers and press your palms down into your right quad. Draw up through your lower belly and peel your core away from your front thigh. Press deeply into your front leg as your roll your shoulders back and lift your heart up. Take 8 breaths and proceed to Step 3.
From your lunge, brace yourself with your hands on the ground and wiggle your front heel forward toward straight. Counterbalance the extension of the front leg by slowly wiggling the rear foot back as well until you come into your full split. If your split is not full yet, feel free to place two blocks underneath your hands for support or place a block at any level underneath the top part of your right hamstring.
The splits are intense are their own, but it's time to add on! The best way to test the waters is by venturing into this next step. Keep your right hand down on the ground to brace yourself and bend your left knee, lifting your foot off the ground. Reach back with your left hand and grab the inside of the foot similar to what you did in Step 1. You may feel intense sensation immediately, and if so THIS is your pose and you'll breathe and work here. If you can handle more intensity, begin to bend your left elbow and gently draw your left foot in as you relax both shoulders and roll them back. Keep trying to square your hips towards the front of your mat.
Lasso your strap over the ball of your back foot. Reach back with your left hand and grasp underneath the strap (the closer you reach to the foot, the deeper the backbend). Keeping your left shoulder in its socket, rotate your left elbow out, up and in so it points toward the ceiling. You may find your that your balance is off now, so if that's happening keep your right hand on the ground for support, lift your chest and square your hips. If your hips are OK with balance, reach your right arm up, bend the elbow and grab the strap as well. Hold here or slowly walk your hands down towards your foot. Roll the left hip forward and keep your front foot flex as an anchor.
The best way to work the full pose is from the previous step; keep working it and walking your hand down the strap to grab your foot until you've done it enough times to have the confidence. If you're working without a strap come into your full split. Bend your back leg and reach back with your left hand with the palm up and elbow bent. Grab your pinky toe and climb your toes like a staircase on the front side of your foot until you reach the big toes. Keep the rotation of your palm, grab hold and rotate your elbow out, up and in. Draw your arm to your face. Brace yourself with your right hand or reach it up, bend the elbow and walk down your right forearm to find the foot. Hug both elbows into the midline. Roll your right hip forward, lift from your lower belly and keep the front leg active. Don't forget to breathe!
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.