I’ll never forget the first time I did Ustrasana (Camel Pose). I felt like I was clamoring for air, didn’t know where to look, and at one point thought my neck might break. It felt anything but good; instead, I felt panicky, triggered, unsettled, and upset.
Fast-forward several years; I’m a yoga teacher now. Recently, I did an Instagram poll and found out that the most unpopular pose (according to my little corner of the world) is, you guessed it, Camel Pose. Though it is now one of my favorite shapes, both to practice and teach, I am not at all surprised by this.
If you’ve taken class with me recently, you’ve definitely done Camel and likely a handful of other love-to-hate backbends. Sometimes I make backbends my focus poses of the month. Because backbends can change your life. They changed mine.
I truly believe that movement on our mat is “practice” for life off the mat. We put practice into action when we step away from our mats and take with us what we learn through asana. This has proven particularly true for me in my backbending practice, as it helped me find healthy ways to navigate challenging moments and release deeply buried stress.
Building strength and finding joy after loss
I wandered into my first yoga flow class just months after an earth-shaking traumatic loss. As a beginner, I hadn’t the faintest clue that practice on my mat was actually practice for life. Though grief, loss, and trauma are not easy to experience or be around, they’re also inevitable. Even the most compassionate and eloquent humans fumble for the right words when we or another person is struggling. These feelings are uncomfortable, and most people want to escape from them as quickly as possible.
On the flip side, as a griever, it can feel impossible to fully express the complex emotions you’re experiencing. Every loss is different. Just as we’re each born into the world with a unique set circumstances, it seems we make our exits with equal distinctions, and this really complicates the reactions and emotions of those we leave behind. Fortunately, yoga can help us get comfortable in the uncomfortable moments and reconnect to ourselves through our bodies and breath.
Seeing clearly in hindsight
Nine years later, the puzzle pieces have come together for me, as I reflect on how yoga has changed my life. Backbends in particular have taught me to overcome my deep sense of loss, isolation, discomfort, and spiraling anxiety. And moreover, these poses—combined with yoga philosophy—continually teach me to open up to joy after loss.
At the end of my first yoga class, after cooling down from Camel, I remember feeling a brief wave of true calm. It was the first moment I can remember where I felt hope again. I also recall having an appetite that day, which was a welcome change and a small step toward solace.
As my practice continued to unfold, I recognized that yoga was integral to my healing. Coupled with the support of amazing, tireless, and loving family and friends, yoga lifted me from a place I never imagined I’d visit, one Camel at a time.
Thousands of hours spent practicing, studying, and teaching yoga helped me realize that my body was learning to express what was stored deep within me. For some time, I could not verbally articulate my emotions, but my body could through movement. My brain was slowly rewiring itself to find stability in moments of discomfort, panic, and imbalance.
How yoga helps us process emotions
My experience, while profound, certainly wasn’t unique. According to clinical psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
For me, the panic induced by a backbend was an intense representation of how I felt in my life. The stress of my breath falling short and my desire to escape discomfort as soon as possible was all too familiar. I kept coming back to my mat because my practice offered me rare, precious moments of peace between uncomfortable moments. It gave me hope as it helped increase my appetite—both for food and life.
Now I know that yoga asana was helping my body and mind learn to process panic and emotional distress. In One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life, author and yoga teacher Eddie Stern discusses the mechanics of yoga, particularly how postures and pranayama (breath control) help regulate the nervous system. He writes, “Our ability to regulate the nervous system, to achieve homeostasis, is a large part of our ability to be resilient, which means that we are able to bounce back after regular day-to-day challenges, as well as from illness, fatigue, emotional stress, or trauma.”
Toning your nervous system with backbends
Backbends are activating postures that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is commonly described as the “fight or flight” defense system. When we are in a vulnerable backbend, our nerves literally tell our brain that we should panic. But breathing steadily through a backbend helps bring a calming uptick in the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) part of the nervous system. These moments are training our bodies to remain calm, even when our nerves are telling our minds to react otherwise.
Stern further explains that our autonomic nervous systems, which is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, govern automatic functions of the body—respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep, and body temperature. Stern says the sympathetic system shifts into gear when we move toward an activity. He compares it to an accelerator in a car. The parasympathetic nervous system operates when we are sleeping, digesting, resting, like brakes in the car.
“Yoga practices help to harmonize and bring balance to these rhythms by accessing directly the mainframe of our rhythmicity, the central nervous system, through movement, breath, and focused awareness,” Stern explains.
The deeper healing impact of backbends
B.K.S. Iyengar believed that backbends are key in helping us face fear and ultimately open the heart. We can mindfully and deliberately create moments of fear in the practice of yoga so that we learn to move through it with courage and grace on and off our mats. Through backbends, we shed the layers of protection we’ve built up over the years, and in doing so, we reveal a ripeness of emotion.
In a 1991 interview, Iyengar explained that backbends “give stability, or maturity, where there’s ripeness in the brain, ripeness in the emotion,” he said. “You can take catastrophes with a calm mind, which others cannot do.”
I recently studied with former students of B.K.S. Iyengar. What struck me most about their teachings was the reverence with which they speak of yoga asana. They give full attention to the medicinal aspects of yoga that Iyengar often spoke of, and they put this at the forefront of their sequencing. It is profoundly inspiring, not to mention extremely healing.
When I think about the context of their teaching, the pieces of my yoga journey—and how deeply healing it has been—begin to click together. After all, piercing the layers of our internal protective shells is no easy feat. But as we shed layer by layer through asana, we begin to uncover what is really at our center.
Connection after trauma
When I experience profound moments on my mat, particularly in backbends, I feel like I’m breaking away some of what holds me back. On many levels—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—it feels like I’m shedding a layer of fear and reconnecting to the pure truth of my heart that existed before the harsh realities of life forced me to close myself off. These moments can teach us to differentiate between the reality of our own essence and the stories we’ve bound ourselves to along the way.
I’ve found that, at my center, is a pure sense of exhilarating joy. And you can find that, too. It can only be experienced through a true connection with yourself—your heart, your essence, your “center.”
The tools we learn in our yoga practice to get us through discomfort become tools to unlock presence in moments of joy. The yoga on our mats is a practice for life. From Happy Baby, to Child’s Pose, to the final release of Savasana—the cycle of life exists within asana. And when we step off of our mats, the physical practice may end, but the yoga is really just beginning.
Honoring the journey
When I look back now on my journey with yoga, I think of the millions before me who have healed from these practices for thousands of years. The wisdom is ancient, but its potency is just as strong. Each time I walk off my mat, I remind myself of Sutra 1.1: “Athayoga Anushasanam.” Now begins the practice of yoga.
While in the depths of grief, it felt impossible to unravel what I needed. Sometimes all I could do was lay down and weep until my face tingled, and wonder if this was real life. It’s hard to imagine that same shattered version of myself wandering into a yoga studio for the first time. I don’t know what led me there, but I will always be grateful it did.
The medicine of the practice healed me at a time when I had no idea what prescription I needed. And though I will never say that the practice put the pieces of my heart back together, it has taught me to breathe through the moments where the pieces feel too sharp to bear.
Neeti Narula is a mindfulness teacher in New York City. She was first drawn to yoga during a difficult time in her life. She sees teaching as an opportunity to share with others a sacred practice that has brought her solace and immense personal growth. Furthermore, Neeti sees teaching as life’s greatest opportunity to learn.