I've had an uneasy relationship with backbends. My strengths had always been in inversions and arm balances because my spine is not the most flexible in the world. I used to get anxious anticipating backbends and would experience a sense of claustrophobia as my chest would open. It's funny since the deeper the backbend, the deeper the release. I had such emotional baggage when it came to deep heart openers that my body would shut down even before it began.
With time, an open perspective and a dollup of patience, I've learned to love these poses. I especially adore Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Upward-Facing Two Foot Staff Pose). The shape of this posture breaks away at the years of cement I've buried in my back, leaving me in a state of goofy bliss.
Enter this pose without expectation and don't forget to breathe. Take a deep inhale before you change positions. Let movement come from the exhale. Open your heart, open your chest, open your options.
*Note: This pose is extremely deep in the chest so I recommend a few Sun Salutations along with a Headstand and several Urdvha Dhanurasana's before you go into this Challenge Pose.
Come onto all fours in front of a wall and interlace your fingers, tucking the bottom pinky finger in so it doesn't get crushed. Place the knuckles against the wall and separate the elbows shoulder-width apart. Curl the toes under as the hips lift into Dolphin Pose. Keep your head off of the ground as the feet walk in towards the elbows. Outer edges of the arms wrap around the bone to stabilize the shoulders. Root into the elbows so there is no sliding or splaying. Keep the neck relaxed and the gaze slightly forward. Hold for 8 breaths and then rest.
Repeat Dolphin Pose. Lift your dominant leg and kick up against the wall. Once both of the feet are at the wall (the head is still lifting off of the mat), bring the entire length of the leg against the wall. The feet, calves, hamstrings and hips are now flush against the wall. Renew the wrapping of the triceps and rooting of the elbows. Do NOT let your elbows go wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep the legs resting against the wall with the tailbone reaching toward the heels. Draw the head and chest through the arms away from the wall. If the neck is not bothered, take the gaze towards the navel. Take 8 breaths. To release, lengthen the tailbone toward the ceiling to remove the legs from the wall. Kick back down and come into Child's Pose to rest.
Lie on your back with the knees bent and the soles of the feet flat and hip-width apart. Reverse your palms and place them down shoulder-width apart directly above your shoulders. Lift the hips, press into the feet, and come onto the crown of your head. Pause here. Practice hugging the elbows in over the wrists, drawing the tips of the shoulder blades toward the heart, and curling the chest. Next, place one forearm down at a time so the fingers are pointing in the direction of the feet. Interlace your fingers behind your head like you were setting up for Headstand. Once the hands are set, press down into the forearms to lift the head off of the mat. Continue the mantra of "triceps in, elbows root." Imagine shrinking your armpits and firming the upper outer edges of the arms in. Gently practice curling the chest through the arms to open the throat and heart. Use the strength of your legs to help transfer more opening into the chest vicinity.
Keep the curling of the upper chest and walk both feet several steps away from the upper body. Step the feet together so the inner edges touch. Push into the feet to work the legs toward straight or as far as they'll comfortably go for you. Roll the upper inner thighs down and push powerfully into the big toes. Relax the neck and try to hold for 8 full breaths.
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 MBG, creator of Gaiam's Aim True Yoga DVD and is currently writing Rodale's The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.