Tell the truth. You've been in the midst of a backbending practice and felt desire flood your entire being. It made your heart beat fast and your eyes freeze with intense focus. It drove you to bend back with all your might until your groins hardened, your thighbones pushed up and out, and your lower back arched too deeply. Later that day, the adrenaline rush long gone, you felt drained, spacey, and loaded with lower back pain.
Backbends are exciting, and it's normal to crave a deep, gorgeous arc in your spine, but pushing yourself too hard isn't worth the heartache—or backache. Rodney Yee, who created the sequence that follows, offers this simple advice: Create evenness in your spine by imagining that it's like a wheel. To do this, Yee advises pressing the thighbones back toward the hamstrings and then tucking the tailbone slightly. Experiment with this action in your backbends and you'll begin to notice that it keeps your lower back long and free from compression. Also, avoid overbending your neck; allow it to be a natural extension of the rest of the spine rather than lettting it hang back listlessly.
By following these instructions, you will also increase the flow of prana toward your heart, or the fourth chakra. Yee likens the heart to Grand Central Station: "You want everything to flow through it. When you overbend anywhere in your spine, it's like creating a kink in a garden hose. You block that energy flow." But if you align yourself properly, you can bring energy into your heart chakra, which B.K.S. Iyengar calls the seat of the soul. When you do this, Yee says, "you'll have the euphoria afterward but not the adrenaline crash. There'll be an energetic clarity instead of an energetic blasting."
Before You Begin
Yee recommends doing whatever is necessary for you to feel mentally and physically settled before the sequence. If you're feeling agitated or full of energy, start with Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) or do a sequence of standing poses. If you're feeling quiet, chant or simply sit in meditation for a few minutes.
1. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), variation
Fold a blanket so that it is 3 to 4 inches wide. Roll up one end to the size of a grapefruit. Place it 3 inches below your navel, and lie on top of it so that it is between your hip points and above your pubic bone. Relax and drape yourself over the prop. Then notice how it supports your lower back: As it presses into your belly and makes it hollow, the low back will lengthen, your tailbone will drop, and your heels will turn away from each other. Next, place your hands on either side of your chest and begin to slowly press up to Cobra Pose. Wiggle your spine to get any kinks out, then make the arch in your spine as even as possible. Repeat several times, staying for 3 to 5 breaths each time.
2. TV-Watching Pose
Place your hands under your chin as you lengthen your torso and legs away from your head. Experiment with the placement of your elbows (closer to or farther from your chest). As you stay here for 5 to 10 breaths, allow your entire spine to deepen into your body while the muscles of your back spread wide. The backbend of your lower back should match the curve in your neck.
3. Ardha Virasana (Half Hero Pose), variation
Bring your left leg into a squat and your right leg into Virasana. Place your fingertips behind you and lift your pelvis up. As the pelvis rises, let the chest follow. Tuck your tailbone as you relax your inner groins. Even though your pelvis lifts, press the right thighbone back toward your hamstrings. Gaze at your chest or drop your head back. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
4. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), variation
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a yoga block under your sacrum at whatever height is comfortable for you. Place your heels firmly on the ground. Bring your right leg into Virasana. If you can, reach down and grasp your right ankle and bring the top of your right foot close to your hip. (If you feel any knee pain, keep both heels on the ground.) Lift your chest as you lower your right knee toward the floor. Then lengthen your tailbone and sacrum as your thighbones descend toward your hamstrings. After 5 to 8 breaths, switch sides. Rest for 10 breaths with both feet on the floor.
5. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), variation
Place the back of a chair against a wall. Wrap your fingers around the sides of the seat. Bring your shoulders directly above your wrists. Extend your legs behind you powerfully, and internally rotate your thighs. Drop your tailbone, keep your groins soft, and press your thighbones back. Lift your chest and gaze up, but don't jam your neck. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths and repeat several times.
6. Standing Drop Back
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels, firm your legs, and press your thighbones back. On an inhalation, lift your chest as high as you can until you begin to drop back into a backbend. Remember that the entire spine should bend evenly—avoid compressing your lower back. Take your hands to your upper thighs and bend your knees slightly if you need to. Stay for a few breaths and exhale to come back up. Repeat 3 times.
7. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Kneel on your shins with your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Once again, press your thighbones back toward your hamstrings as your tailbone moves forward. On an exhalation, lift your chest and arch back, bringing your hands to your heels. If you feel any back pain, stay upright, placing your palms on your sacrum with the fingertips pointing up. Repeat 3 times, staying for 3 to 5 breaths each time.
8. Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose)
Sit with your legs extended straight in front of you and your fingertips about 8 inches behind your hips. Inhale, press your palms into the floor, and lift your pelvis as high as you can without jamming your lower back. Hollow your belly as you did during Cobra Pose. As you stay for 3 to 5 breaths, focus on lengthening your entire body as much as you focus on lifting up. Repeat 3 times.
9. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Sit with your sacrum at the edge of a round bolster, and have three blankets and a strap nearby. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet together, drawing them close to your pelvis. Fold two blankets and place one under each thigh; it's important to support your legs so that you can fully relax in the pose. Place the last blanket at the top of the bolster for your head. Next, make a very large loop out of the strap; wrap it around the back of your pelvis and the outside of your feet. Pull it tight enough so that your legs feel supported, but not so tight that it causes discomfort. Lie back on the bolster. Your head should be slightly higher than your chest, and your chest should be higher than your pelvis. Rest your arms on the floor, with your palms facing up. Stay here for 3 to 5 minutes, or longer if you like.
10. Savasana (Corpse Pose), variation
Fold your blanket so that it is a couple of inches thick and about a foot wide. Place the blanket underneath your chest and slide your arms under the blanket. Bring your legs hip-width apart with your knees facing the ceiling. Place a strap around your thighs to prevent your legs from turning out and to keep your sacrum broad. Place a sandbag on the very top of your thighs to help press your thighbones down. Release deeply into the pose for 10 minutes. Gradually roll to your right side, place your hands on the floor, and press up to a seated position.
After You Finish
If you'd like to add to this sequence, try Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) after Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose). Then do the twist Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist) as shown above. Afterward, do a simple reclined twist. Then move into Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) and Savasana (Corpse Pose).