During the '70s, when I was awakening to the world of yoga, one of my teachers encouraged me to get B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. That book—full of photos of asanas that were way beyond anything I'd learned —was a revelation. The poses looked cool, and I wanted to do them all—especially the dramatic ones! Surely, this was the stuff of "real" yoga, I thought. Determined, I would put the book beside me as I did my best to imitate the pictures. The results, despite my efforts, were less than solid. Since I was still unaware of proper technique, I overworked and was often injured. Thirty-five years later I see things more clearly: I was getting ahead of myself. Foundation poses were, in fact, invaluable steps that slowly revealed a logical path to more challenging poses. I learned the hard way that a progressive practice is far more intelligent than the hit-or-miss efforts of my early years.
Often, I see students who are, as I was, caught up in a giddy rush to "jump to the back of the book." I encourage them to follow vinyasa krama. The word vinyasa is commonly used to refer to flowing from one pose to another, but the familiar translation doesn't do it justice. Vinyasa means "to place in a special or particular way." Krama means "steps." Practicing vinyasa, according to this definition, is more strategic than just imitating advanced postures you see in a book or magazine. It requires you to slow down and pay attention to the subtle sensations in your body as well as the form.
When you approach the following vinyasa from where you are, you will learn to rely on breath and sensation for guidance. Step by step you will discover that working methodically creates more efficient asana and awakens your soul. Insights will surface from the vast sea of awareness that exists within you, and you will learn not only that there is no express lane, but that the true joy is in the journey.
Before You Begin
Get ready for this sequence to Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) by practicing for an hour or more to warm your muscles. Asanas that open the shoulders, stretch the thighs, tone your abdominals, and warm the spine are particularly suitable.
As an experienced student, you already know many poses that focus on these areas. Poses that I find most effective and suggest weaving into a warm-up sequence are Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Pose) with the arms overhead, Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), spinal twists, Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose), Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), and Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance). I also encourage lying over a bolster for 5 to 10 minutes to invite the back muscles to relax. Start with the bolster under the shoulders and your arms stretched overhead, then move it under the midribs with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades touching the top of the bolster. Relax your arms at shoulder height. You can recall these sensations later in the active backbends.
Of equal importance is a "warmed up" mind. When the mind is internalized and curious, it is less likely to be seduced into pinning too much importance on the final pose. I suggest sitting quietly with the eyes closed for a few minutes, focusing on your breathing.
The backbends that comprise the following sequence build up gradually: Each one is more challenging than the one before it. As you move through them, try to feel the drama of the external form as well as understand the internal flow of energy. Start by looking at the external shape of a backbend, and see how the spine arches backward (or extends) to form a circle that holds the potential of one end touching the other. There is also a subtle energetic circle, which you can think of as a wheel spinning in place. When you focus on the energetic movement of the wheel instead of just the external shape of the pose, you can truly create the sense of a circular spine. In fact, this circular energy will inform the external action, -encouraging your spinal muscles to release into a deeper, more fluid backbend. If you have a kinesthetic understanding of this wheel like -movement in the more -rudimentary backbends such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), you can use it as a guide while you explore deeper ones.
The first pose of the sequence requires spinal flexibility as well as strength, a combination that makes it more challenging than it appears. Before moving into Cobra Pose, try a variation (not pictured) that will help you isolate the action of the spine: Lie face-down on your mat with your feet hip-width apart and your forehead on the floor. Stretch your arms forward shoulder-width apart with your palms facing each other, pinkies on the floor. Look at your nose, keeping your eyes steady. Also consider practicing with your eyes closed so that you can guide the pose from within. Steady breathing is critical to avoid overstimulating the nerves. Breathe with your mouth closed, keeping a 1:1 ratio between your inhalations and exhalations with a steady whisper in the base of the throat.
Direct the pubis and tailbone toward your feet, sending a flow of movement through the legs like water through a pipe to ground your legs and lighten your torso. Keeping your arms outstretched and your pinkies on the floor, breathe in, raising your head and chest off the floor. Now breathe out, drawing your lower belly in and up to deepen the backbend and stabilize the lumbar spine. The action of the backbend will slide your hands toward you. Isolate your attention to the arc of circular energy, then exhale as you raise your arms parallel to the floor. Enhance the arch of your thoracic spine by expanding your chest, lifting your sternum, and pulling the side ribs forward and up. Keep your gaze steady and your head upright. Hold for three to five breaths, then release the pose and rest your head on your hands. Repeat one or two more times to imprint the sensations of a circular spinal movement in your memory. Now you are ready for Cobra Pose.
Place your hands, palms down, under your shoulders, bringing your elbows near your ribs. From here proceed as you did in the variation, step by step: Press the pubis and tailbone to the mat, lengthening them away from the navel to tether the spine to the legs. Inhaling, curl the head and chest off the floor; exhale as you draw the lower abdomen in and up, keeping the breath and gaze steady as you look straight ahead. As the backbend peaks, engage the arms by pushing your shoulders back and down until your elbows are almost straight. Feel how your arms support and deepen the backbend. However —important! —working the arms is not the primary action; active spinal extension is. So, continue to curl the upper back into a spinal wheel with each inhalation and draw the belly in and up with each exhalation. Take advantage of the arms, though; their support will allow you to release excess tension in your back muscles, which opens the door to greater flexibility. When you're ready for a deeper movement, exhale as you press the shoulders back and down and straighten the arms.
Notice how steady breathing helps free the spine and sustain the pose. Holding Cobra reveals the dynamic process of refinement. If you hurry through the pose, you'll miss it. Stay with the process as long as your breath is steady and you feel the pose growing, then rest your head on your hands for a minute before repeating it two more times. On the final Cobra, take your head back, pulling the base of your skull toward your tailbone. With the tailbone securely anchored, imagine yourself looping your spine around a ball to join the head and the pubic bone. Continue lifting your sternum and side ribs, chasing your head as it descends. Draw the inner shoulder blades down the back to deepen the backbend in your upper spine.
After your last Cobra Pose, rest in Balasana (Child's Pose), until your breathing has relaxed to an easy rhythm.
Urdhva Mukha Vajrasana (Upward-Facing Thunderbolt)
The pose that I refer to as Up-ward-Facing Thunderbolt Pose is a bridge between Cobra and Camel Pose. It illuminates the habitual patterns that often interfere with an optimal experience in backbends.
In Child's Pose, replay Cobra in your mind, tapping into your kinesthetic memory. Next, hold on to your heels and separate your knees slightly wider than hip width (you can also bring your feet outside the hips). You might also want to pad your knees and ankles with a blanket.
As you did in Cobra, root your spine to your legs by moving the pubis away from the navel, and the tailbone away from the lumbar spine. Recalling the actions of Cobra, breathe in as you curl your head and chest off the floor until only your lower ribs remain on your thighs.
Pause here for a couple of breaths, rolling your front shoulders and collarbones up and back. Expand the chest with such radiance that it lifts the ribs off the thighs and lifts the sternum. Ride this circular motion up into Upward-Facing Thunderbolt Pose. Stay seated as you deepen the backbend. Continue to expand the chest and lift the side ribs and sternum while you press the lower shoulder blades into the ribs. Hold the pose for several steady breaths and then unroll back to Child's Pose, head last.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Pause in Child's Pose, taking time to steady your breath. When you are ready, coil into Upward-Facing Thunderbolt, relying again on your somatic memory to recall the circular energy of Cobra Pose. Pause to reinforce the grounding action of connecting the pubis and tailbone to the legs. Notice how this deepens the groins and invites a slight internal rotation of the thighs. Keeping your head back, exhale and press your hands strongly against your heels to lift the sternum and swing your hips over your knees to Ustrasana. The beauty of arching up through Upward-Facing Thunderbolt to Camel Pose is that it requires you to move with integrated spinal extension, especially in the oft-neglected midspine. Without this integration, the tendency is to borrow the movement from the quadriceps, causing you to round (flex) the back and push the thighs forward and stress the lower back and neck. It may also prevent you from getting into Camel Pose.
It's ultimately liberating to move from the inner guidance of circular energy, but it can be confusing at first. If you are puzzled, pause and spend a few breaths considering your route from Child's Pose to Camel Pose. When I assist a student with this pattern, I do so by sitting behind her, holding her arms and gently pressing my foot into the dull midback to make the circular spinal movement from Upward Thunderbolt to Camel Pose more conscious. I'm not there to help you now, but perhaps you can imagine it.
Remember, lead with the head and chest and deepen the groins as you push into Camel Pose. If you are not yet flexible enough to hold your heels during the transition to Camel Pose, place a strap under your feet in Child's Pose and hold on to each end to create a little more room for your backbend. Do not, however, be too quick to use this option; usually the problem is not lack of flexibility, but a loss of the wheel-like energy of the backbend.
Once you are in Camel, keep your weight equally distributed between both knees and feet. Tether the pubis and -tailbone to the legs. You'll find that this action supports your lower back and generates a strong lift of the belly out of the pelvis to help release the spine into a deep backbend. Continue to expand and lift the chest, since this encourages the circular energy in your upper spine and allows you to drop the head back comfortably.
After a few breaths, come out of the pose in reverse: From Camel, with your head back and your chest lifted, roll the thighs in and reach with the pubis toward the feet to sit back down in Upward-Facing Thunderbolt. Pause, and then return to Child's Pose, head last. Expect this flow to be a little shaky at first. The tendency to push with the thighs will cause you to round your back and make returning to Upward Thunderbolt difficult. Remember: head back, pubis toward heels.
Repeat the sequence of Child's Pose to Upward-Facing Thunderbolt Pose to Camel Pose once or twice more to fix the feeling of the circular flow in your spine. Until your body understands this wheel-like movement and you can move into Camel from Child's Pose without a strap, I don't advise going further with this sequence. I also suggest stopping here if you are exhausted or unable to avoid pain in your lower back or shoulders.
Transition to Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose)
The transition to Kapotasana requires you to abandon the arm support that you have in Camel Pose. To pre-pare, try this transition flow: Begin by arching into Camel Pose while holding your heels. Consciously relax your back in Camel, making your head and front shoulders heavy as you slowly release your heels, joining your palms at your chest. Breathe steadily and surrender to gravity as you coax the spine to be fluid and ride the image of a wheel to take the head closer to the feet. If you cannot maintain a steady breathing pattern and deepen the backbend, hold your heels again and return, consciously, to Upward-Facing Thunderbolt Pose and then to Child's Pose. If you are able to remain composed, you can move from here to Kapotasana, the grand finale of this sequence.
Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose)
From the transition pose, exhale as you slowly stretch your arms overhead until your palms reach the floor. You may wish to rest your head on the floor and pause. Though the effort may be extreme, try to keep a sense of the circular energy by keeping the chest open and guiding the head and shoulders toward the tail. Breathing steadily (mouth closed, 1:1 ratio between inhalation and exhalation), anchor the pubis and tail to the legs and internally rotate your thighs slightly. Your efforts to refrain from pushing your thighs forward in Camel Pose will pay off now that your quads are stretched to their absolute max.
After your brief rest, exhale and push your arms straight. Walk your hands toward your feet. Rest on your head again, pause, press up to straight arms, and walk the hands in farther, continuing this process until you are holding your feet or heels or until you feel you have reached your edge. With your elbows shoulder-width apart, exhale and follow the circular movement of the backbend to bring your head to your feet and elbows to the floor.
Breathe steadily to help refine the pose. Intelligent support from the legs combined with an expanded and lifted chest is key for maintaining mental clarity and energetic steadiness in this full expression of Pigeon Pose.
To come out, you can place your hands, palms-down, next to your ears, tuck your chin, and relax to the floor. But if possible, exhale, release your grip, and pull yourself up to kneeling with a strong lift of the sternum. Either way, rest in Child's Pose.
Regardless of how far you progress in the sequence, allow time to unwind and cool down. Begin by slowing and deepening your exhalations until your breathing is relaxed and your whole body feels calm, steady, and vibrant.
Once the breath rhythm is restored, do a short series of reclining twists and hip openers such as Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) and Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) at about 50 percent of your edge to allow the body to undo any unintended muscle tension. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) or Sirsasana (Headstand) can round out the practice before concluding, of course, with Savasana (Corpse Pose).
I hope that by practicing these poses you have gained insight about sequencing as well as the asanas themselves. Artful vinyasa is much like a walk in the woods: The first step is to get on the path. Whether you stop to work through an obstacle or to savor an experience, each pose is a conscious pause along a trail toward a hardy body and mind.
When considering which asanas to include in this sequence, I chose poses that complement and inform each other for a vinyasa that evolves into a satisfying sum of its parts. Even if the full sequence is out of reach today, recognize the step-by-step process, remembering the concept of vinyasa krama. As you persevere, you'll develop the patience, strength, and maturity to journey toward backbends that are rich and satisfying on every level. In other words, you'll know that you're on the right path.
Devoted to yoga since the early 1970s, Barbara Benagh studied and taught Iyengar Yoga until 1986, when she became drawn to the internal technology of yoga as taught by Angela Farmer and others. Benagh's teaching is grounded in practical asana technique and informed by breath and the subtle body. She has taught in the Boston area and around the world for more than 30 years. For more information about her, visit www.yogastudio.org.