Every action creates a reaction. This is a basic principle of movement, physics, and even relationships. None of us exist without being in relationship—to our bodies, to our minds, to other people, to the natural world—and awareness of the results of our actions and our intentions can deeply inform our yoga practice. If we practice with clear intention, yoga can become a bridge to a more fully lived experience of ourselves and others.
"Setu" means bridge in Sanskrit. It's easy to see the graceful bridgelike shape of this pose. "Bandha" means bondage or fetter and refers to contracting or controlling certain parts of the body in asana. In Setu Bandha, we can explore the interplay of action and reaction. To create the pose's deep expansion in a way that is most beneficial to the body, you must have strength and adequate support, not just limitless flexibility.
Your spine has two natural backbending curves—the lumbar (lower back) and the neck. If you practice backbends without directing the movement into less mobile parts of the spine (the thoracic and upper back, and the sacrum), the neck and lumbar will bear the weight of the pose too deeply. By challenging us to intentionally activate the muscles all along the length of the spine, Setu Bandha teaches us that informed action results in a more harmonious pose.
Recently, I was in a workshop with John Friend. "Do you know why the sun can shine so brightly?" he asked us. "Because there is so much energy drawing into the center of the sun." In order to shine out, we need to draw in. In order to offer anything to others, we need to realize our own strength.
Let's practice Setu Bandha with this awareness. It's a good idea to be well warmed up before doing backbends, so I recommend practicing a few rounds of Sun Salutation and some standing poses first. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent, feet parallel, and your heels two to three inches from your sitting bones. To avoid compressing your lower back, it is important to keep your feet parallel to one another during the entire pose. You may even want to consider using a block between your feet.
Lie on your back for a moment with your knees bent and imagine that your thigh bones are made of lead. Let them sink deeply down into your hip sockets, so your inner groins release back to the floor. You will feel a slight natural inward arch in your lower back. Let your arms rest alongside your body.
Bring your awareness to the center of your sacrum, which may now be slightly off the floor, and from this point, begin to lift your pelvis straight up toward the ceiling. As your pelvis lifts off the floor, interlace your hands, with arms straight, underneath your torso. (If you cannot interlace your hands underneath you, put a strap around the front of your ankles and hold on to the two ends of the strap.) Roll one shoulder under you, then the other, so that you are supported on top of your shoulders as much as possible.
Since you literally spend most of your life in forward bends—driving, sitting at a desk, picking up children, working on computers, sleeping in a curled position—your body desperately needs backbends as a counterpose. But performing backbends without intelligent action can create discomfort in your lower back and shoulder joints, as the already flexible parts of your spine will enthusiastically go into the backbend, leaving your upper spine out of the movement. This is where you must perform actions that inhibit movement and create support where you are already flexible, and deepen movement where you are not as supple.
So as you come into the pose, immediately begin to create strength and support in your legs. Do this by using your hamstrings to try to lift your thigh bones up toward the ceiling. At the same time, resist the front of your thighs, the quadriceps muscles, down toward the floor, creating opposing actions. To deepen the strength and support in your thighs, try to pull your feet isometrically toward your head. This will activate the hamstring muscles at the backs of the thighs and help draw you out of any compression in your lower back. You can also create a bandha, or lift, of your pelvic floor by drawing your perineum (pelvic floor muscles) up into the center of your body, toward your intestines.
Setu Bandha is also a great strengthening pose for your gluteal muscles, so, without losing the action of your legs, press your tailbone toward the ceiling, using your buttocks muscles. Keep your face soft, as if you are about to smile.
Now, bring your awareness to your arms and upper body. Draw your arms slightly toward your head, as if you are retracting them into the shoulder joints. This will give you more ability to activate the rhomboid muscles around your shoulder blades. Draw your shoulder blades together and press your inner shoulder blades into your back to bring your breastbone to a more vertical position. Gaze at your heart and breathe deeply and evenly.
Every time you exhale, be aware of the earthy quality of your legs and back body and let this support you and lift you higher. When you inhale, be aware of the light, airy quality of your upper chest and lungs, and expand joyfully into this area of your body. Playfully, but with great focus, investigate this relationship between action and reaction. Explore your relationship to the earth and your body's ability to dance with gravity through muscle strength, breath, flexibility, and intention.
The founder of Seattle Yoga Arts, Denise Benitez has studied yoga for more than 25 years. She has studied primarily in the Iyengar tradition of hatha yoga, but is also informed by many other traditions of yoga, human movement, and spirituality.