I teach a workshop helping people conquer their fears by asking them what poses scare them. Drop-backs are always the winners! It's one thing to conquer Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), which can strike major fear into the hearts of tight-hamstring folk, but it's a whole other ballgame to try to bend over backward, hoping that the ground will be there for you when you get there.
So here in Challenge Pose, I'm going to break the drop-back down into several parts: keeping yourself open and safe while reaching up and back, dropping into the full backbend, and then standing back up. While the first part, the subject of today's post, may not look super challenging, trust me—it is. If you discipline yourself and work all of these actions, it is exhausting and incredibly rewarding. Just remember as you work toward your drop-back, it SHOULD feel impossible. That's the magic of the posture. Once you get there you'll be on Cloud Nine, but until then, keep doing your best.
One of the most common mistakes made while trying to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana is splaying your legs and feet. Externally rotating the legs gives a sense of more balance and control on the decent toward the ground. The problem is it also contracts the glutes and compresses the low back. In other words—no good. As frustrating as it is, working this rotation of your legs will give you a healthy backbend and, in time, the control that you're looking for.
Come into Uttanasana with your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other. Take your palms to the sides of your legs just below your knees. Begin to apply strong pressure against your legs as if you were trying to close your legs without letting them move. Continue this pressing action and bring your focus to your inner thighs. Try to spread your inner thighs away from each other with a bit of internal rotation. Keep pressing the outer legs with your hands until you feel space in your lower back. This is the action we're looking to create during a backbend in order to protect the low back.
In the same way that the legs like to splay, the arms can easily give out as well. When the arms cease to externally rotate, all the pressure goes into the upper trapezius causing a major traffic jam in the upper back. Working this rotation of your arms allows you release the base of the neck and properly lift from your heart.
Grab a block length-wise, placing your palms flat along the short edges. Extend the arms straight out in front of you. Push deeper into the pinky edge of the hands firing up the triceps. Rotate the entire pinky edge of the arm down and in, wrapping the triceps. Plug the shoulders into the sockets and begin to lift the arms up. As the arms extend, lengthen the side body along the ribs and armpits. Release the area at the base of your neck. Keep these two actions working together, draw your front ribs in to keep core connection, and lengthen through the inner elbows to create straight arms. Keep pressing the palms strongly into the block until the arms go as high as they comfortably can while keeping all the other actions engaged. Hold for 8 full breaths and release.
Step about 12 inches away from a back-facing wall with your feet hip-width apart (this measurement will change depending on your body and backbend. Start here and adjust accordingly). Place a block lengthwise and low between your feet. Gently hug into the block to recreate the actions of Step 1 as you broaden your inner thighs. Keep your kneecaps lifting and rotate your upper inner thighs back as you release your tailbone down. Join your hands in front of your heart in Anjali Mudra. Press the palms together as you roll your shoulder heads back and press your heart up into the heels of your hands. Notice the tendency to lose the lower body work when you lift your chest. Focus on keeping all the elements working together. If the neck allows and there is no holding in your upper trapezius, you can begin to release your head back to gaze toward the wall behind you.
Keeping all the actions from Step 3 solid, release your hands to shoulder-width apart with your palms facing inward. Begin to stretch your arms toward the wall, keeping the actions from Step 1 or externally rotating your arms and not letting them splay open. You may just begin to reach or you might make it to the wall. If you get to the wall, place your fingertips or even your palms there. Hug your upper outer arms in to release the base of your neck, and with every breath remind yourself to lift your heart. There is no such thing as lifting too much with the heart!
If you comfortably land the palms flat against the wall, you can explore walking them down a few inches without bending your knees or losing the lift in your chest. Hold here for 8 breaths. Keep your gaze at the wall and head relaxing backward as you press down into your feet and engage through your legs. Then walk the hands up a bit and pop to your fingertips. Transfer the weight into your legs and roll up one vertebrae at a time, letting the head stack last (looking up is natural as we like to see where we are going, but this adds major strain to the neck. Trust everything is where you left it).
Top photo by Robert Sturman
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 author of Rodale’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga . Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website. Come practice with Kathryn on retreat in February in Maui, Hawaii.