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Yoga for Beginners

Q&A: What Counterposes Do You Recommend for Backbends?

Cyndi Lee offers suggestions for sequencing backbends safely.

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What counterposes do you recommend for Urdhva Dhanurasana? Should I do a counterpose after all backbends even if I’m working on a sequence of backbends to prepare for a pose like Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)? —Janie, Napa, California

Cyndi Lee’s reply:

It is a good idea to structure your practice by sequencing backbends together and building up to a big one like Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). I do not recommend a counterpose after every backbend or backbend preparation. It can be stressful for the back muscles to continuously move back and forth to such extremes.

When you move into backbends such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose), Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend), it is best to follow them with poses that neutralize the spine before doing a counterpose. The following are all neutral poses for the spine:

Constructive Rest: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet as wide apart as your yoga mat. Make your feet slightly pigeon-toed so that your legs internally rotate. Let your knees fall together. Create distance between the feet so that your thighs are relaxed and you don’t have to grip in your legs or feet to stay here. This should create a broad, open feeling across your sacrum.

Hug yourself by wrapping your arms around your upper chest. Stack one elbow on top of the other so that you can feel (or almost feel) the backs of your shoulders with your fingertips. You should feel like this creates space between the shoulder blades. Imagine that your neck begins between your shoulder blades. Bring the breath into your back by imagining nostrils all along the upper spine and neck.

Windshield Wipers: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet as wide apart as your mat. Let your right knee fall in toward your left leg. Keep the left knee pointing up toward the ceiling. After a few breaths, replace your right leg and let the left knee fall in. Continue to slowly go back and forth.

A variation is to let both legs fall together to one side, like American windshield wipers. The first variation is akin to European windshield wipers—one at a time. In the second variation, continue work with the feet wide apart, keeping the pose a gentle twist.

Leg up in the Air: Lying on your back, bring the right knee into your chest. Extend the left leg long on the floor actively, as if it is in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), and reach strongly through the sole of the foot. Interlace your fingers around the back of your right thigh and on an exhalation, extend the sole of the right foot straight up toward the ceiling. If you cannot straighten your leg in this position, loop a belt around your right foot and lengthen it wherever you can. Remember to keep the left leg awake and long. Stay here and breathe.

Be mindful not to bring the leg past 90 degrees with the extended leg. Many people immediately begin to crave the forward bending sensation in this pose–perhaps they see their foot and it makes them want to touch it with their nose. This would be an extremely deep forward bend, which is too intense following backbends, especially Dhanurasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. During the neutralizing poses, cultivate patience and compassion by paying attention to your alignment and breath as it channels through your body, cooling down your nervous system after the heat and energy of backbending.

After doing the neutralizing poses, I recommend forward bends as counterposes. Forward bending counterposes include Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Upavistha Konasana (Open Angle Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). You can also do Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), which is a side bend and twist.

Challenge yourself to stay conscious and alert during the neutralizing poses. The poses are all fairly relaxing, so it may be tempting to zone out, but instead try to use the time to experience the fruits of your backbending practice. As you move into the forward bends, think of them as the completion of the circle you started with your backbends. In this context the poses can be thought of as an expression of how everything in the universe flows together. Forward bending is not a separate and isolated activity, but a continuation of what came before and the beginning of what is next. This kind of awareness can help you stay awake and involved in the experience, rather than going into automatic pilot and just reaching for your toes.