After years of practicing yoga regularly, I had a rude awakening: I realized I had become enslaved by my practice. I would judge myself by how perfectly I'd completed it—my self-esteem was only as deep as my deepest backbend. Although this was hard to admit at the time, it was ultimately liberating.
I began to see that not listening to what my body needed on any given day was the antithesis of freedom. I knew I had to accept that freedom from suffering means letting go of attachments—and that included my attachment to the postures. The poses are simply tools that enable you to reach deeper into yourself.
My awakening helped me see that I'm more free when I look inward and choose poses that are good for me, healing and nurturing—even if that means doing something different from what I'd originally thought I would do. Of course, this insight is spelled out in the eight limbs of classical ashtanga yoga, which ultimately lead to samadhi, or freedom. The first limb is yama, which can be translated as "self-restraint" or "control." Among other things, the yamas teach us about ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth). So when you apply nonviolence and truth to your practice—avoiding poses that don't feel right or that might cause injury—you eventually reach a place of freedom.
Try it with this sequence, which opens your chest and heart—symbols of freedom. It includes props and variations, so you can work deeply but in a way that's appropriate for you. Remember, the hardest posture is not necessarily the most freeing.
Hold each pose as long as you comfortably can, ideally for eight breaths or longer. If your body feels strained or your breath is labored, back off.
A yoga sequence is like a string of pearls: Each pose builds to the next and should connect with ease toward the final posture. Look for that sweet edge where you are challenged but still at peace.
Before You Begin
Ujjayi Breath— While in Hero Pose, place your hands in front of your chest in Prayer Position. Gaze down at your fingertips. Begin to draw the breath smoothly and slowly. Let the sound resonate at the back of your throat instead of in your nose. The inhalation and exhalation should be even in length. Breathe freely but not loudly. Take 10 long, smooth breaths.
Invocation— Chant Om or an invocation of your choice three times.
Warm-up Vinyasa— Come out of Hero and into Downward Dog. Hold for 10 breaths. Release into Child's Pose with your arms reaching forward. Repeat this three times. Each time hold Downward Dog longer and refine the work of your
Standing Poses— The standing poses best suited for backbends are those that warm up the upper back and shoulders and teach neutral rotation of the legs: Intense
Side Stretch Pose, Chair Pose, Triangle Pose, Side Angle Pose, as well as Revolved Triangle and Revolved Side Angle.
Featured Sequence— Consider repeating each of the poses two to three times before moving to the next.
Inversions— After Handstand and Forearm Balance, practice Headstand.
Chest Openers and Backbends— For more backbend work, add Locust before or after Upward Dog.
Virasana (Hero Pose)
Sit (on a block, if you need it) with your feet pointing straight back and
your toes spread wide. Draw your outer ankles in. This protects your
knees and lower back in your backbends. Press down through the tops of your feet and evenly through your sitting bones. From this foundation lift your chest and spine. Release the tops of your thighs and inner thighs down. Soften your front ribs as you lift your back ribs. Spread your collarbones wide and lift the top of your sternum. Instead of puffing your chest and jutting your ribs forward, visualize the lift coming from inside, which should feel calming. Now close your eyes and take a few moments to come into your breath and your practice. Freedom in the breath precedes freedom in the body. Transition to Downward Dog.
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)
Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and step or jump your feet wide. Inhale your arms overhead. Turn your right leg out and your left foot in. Align your feet so your heels are on the same plane. Bring your left outer hip forward to square your hips. To keep your pelvis from tilting forward, lift your front hipbones. Keep reaching your arms up as you exhale, and bend your right leg until the thigh and shin are at a right angle. Stack your knee directly over your ankle and draw weight into your back heel. Keep your back leg straight and send the top of the back thigh away from you. Lift your back ribs out of your lower back as you soften your front ribs. Extend your arms so there's one line of energy from your waist to your fingertips. This creates space in your torso, so you have more room to square your hips. As you extend your arms, soften the base of your neck and gaze forward. Stay for 5 to 8 breaths, then transition to the other side.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
From Warrior I, exhale as you place your hands on the floor and step back into Plank Pose. From Plank, lower to the floor until you're on your belly. Place a block lengthwise between your ankles. With the block between your ankles, press the outer ankles in and place all 10 toes on the floor. Press the tops of your feet into the floor and lift your thighs up to the ceiling. Avoid clenching your butt; this compresses your lower back. Instead, rotate your outer legs down and lift your inner thighs. Position your hands under your elbows and press down, releasing your shoulders away from your ears. Press your shoulder blades into your upper back and lift your sternum forward and up. If your back felt OK doing the first version, repeat it without the block and with your inner ankles touching. This time, reach your legs back and off the floor as you lift your chest. Focus on lengthening your whole body rather than lifting your legs high.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
From Cobra, lift into Upward-Facing Dog. Make sure your shoulders are directly over your wrists and the creases of your wrists are parallel to the front edge of your mat. Press evenly into the base of each knuckle. Hug your forearms toward each other to straighten your arms. Move your arm bones back without crunching your shoulders. Create the wheel of the chest: trapezius muscles down, shoulder blades in, sternum forward and up. Look for a feeling of freedom in your chest, shoulders, and neck. Do the same actions in your legs
as you did in Cobra. Back off if you feel any strain. Once your chest is open and lifted, raise your head and gaze up. Transition to Downward-Facing Dog.
Bhekasana (Frog Pose)
Come to Plank and lower to your belly. Prop yourself up with your elbows. Reach back and clasp the inside of your right foot. Slowly rotate your elbow up to the ceiling and press your foot toward the floor next to your torso. Be sure to keep your knee in line with your hip. Don't push your foot too hard if it hurts your knee. Square your shoulders with the front of the mat and don't collapse into your left shoulder. Instead, press down with your elbow to lift your chest. Do Bhekasana on both sides. Once your thighs and groins open enough, you can try the full pose—both legs at the same time. To transition out, inhale, press into Upward Dog and exhale into Downward Dog.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
Handstand is great preparation for backbends. It warms your upper body and teaches the actions of the arms and shoulders. It also builds strength for pressing up into a backbend. Place your hands 2 to 4 inches from the wall with the creases of your wrists parallel to the front of the mat. Take a strap and make a loop that's shoulder width and place it right above your elbows. Place your shoulders directly over your wrists. Inhale as you kick up. Once you're up, look down between your hands. Avoid arching your back: Flex your feet and move your heels up the wall. Move the flesh of your buttocks and your back ribs up the wall, away from your lumbar region. Soften your front ribs. Keep your breath smooth and free from strain.
Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance)
Place a strap above your elbows and a block between your hands to prevent your elbows from splaying and your hands from coming together. (To position your hands correctly around the block, see inset.) Place your hands, forearms, and elbows shoulder-width apart. Bring your shoulders directly over your elbows. Lift your shoulders away from
the floor. Now inhale and kick your legs up to the wall. Press your inner wrists and forearms down to lift your shoulders. Keep your head up and look between your forearms. Again, avoid arching your lower back by lengthening the back of your body: legs up, buttock flesh out of the lower back, front ribs soft. Come down and rest, sitting back on your heels or in Virasana.
King Arthur's Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana variation)
Come close to a wall. Place one knee at the wall with your foot pointing up like Virasana. Move your buttocks, torso, and shoulders as close to the wall as you can. Adjust your front foot so your knee is over your ankle. Square and level your hips as best you can—remember to respect your limits. Inhale as you reach your arms overhead, palms facing each other. This may be enough. If you're not feeling the stretch, place your hands on the floor. Scoot your front foot forward, but keep your knee over your ankle. Begin to bring your hips forward into a lunge. Do both sides before coming into Camel.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Using a wall when doing Camel Pose gives you a chance to practice restraint and truth. The wall prevents you from jutting your hips and thighs forward, so your backbend is more authentic. Place a strap around your thighs, hip width. Turn to face the wall. Place your knees, thighs, hips, and chest at the wall. Put a block between your feet. Press your outer ankles into the block and spread your toes wide. Ground the tops of your feet and your shins into the floor to firm the pose. Think of loosening the strap by rotating your outer legs in and drawing the insides of your thighs away from the wall. Maintain the actions of your legs, and lift the front hipbones and sternum up the wall. Start to press your hands and begin to lift your chest off the wall. If your hips can remain on the wall, reach back to hold your heels.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose, preparation)
Place the strap around your elbows, shoulder- width apart. Lie on your back with your head close to the wall. Bring your feet 2 inches in front of your sitting bones. Inhale and come to the top of your head, placing your forearms and elbows on the wall. Lift your shoulders toward the ceiling and draw them back into their sockets. To open the chest fully, move your back ribs toward the front of your body, creating a dome shape. Remember the wheel of your chest. Extend the buttock flesh toward the backs of your knees and simultaneously move your shinbones toward the wall. This drops weight into your heels and allows your groins to open. To come down, lift your head, tuck your chin, and lower yourself to the mat.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
Come into the preparation with the top of your head on the floor. Without letting your shoulders move out of their sockets and keeping your elbows on the wall, lift your head off the floor. (It's OK if your arms don't straighten all the way.) Look toward the wall and externally rotate your upper arms and draw them toward each other. Keep the sacrum wide, rotate your legs in, and move the buttock flesh away from your lower back. Now fully straighten your arms by simply lifting your chest. Avoid pushing your chest to the wall; this can create a dislocating action in your shoulders. Your elbows will probably leave the wall. To increase the depth of your backbend, press down through your hands and feet as you draw your hips and front ribs toward your navel. Think of your navel as the apex of the pose. Keep your eyes soft and your breath steady. Rest for a few breaths before moving into the final pose.
Backbend on a stool
To make this pose work for you, you'll need to experiment. Most people should place a strap around the lower legs of a stool and a flat bolster over the seat. If you're short, you might need to place the bolster under your feet rather than on top of the stool and move the strap higher on the stool. Once you're all the way back, the edge of the stool should be just beneath your shoulder blades to encourage your heart to open. When you're ready, turn your back to the stool, grab the sides of it, bend your knees, and place your sacrum at the edge. Lower yourself back and grab hold of the strap with one hand. Slowly grab the strap with the other hand. Keep your feet parallel and rotate your legs in. Walk your hands as far down the strap as you can but keep moving your shoulder blades down your back so your shoulders stay in their sockets. The stool should protect your lower back while you get a nice opening in your chest. To come out, release the strap, press into your feet, and press your elbows into the stool to stand.
You must counterpose a backbend routine. There are many options, but I like to lie down with both knees hugged into my chest. Stay here for at least 10 breaths; then do easy spinal twists to both sides.
Forward bends also counter backbends. Try Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose with a strap, or go directly into Seated Forward Bend.
Do Shoulderstand and Plow Pose. You can use blankets to help you stay in the pose longer.
Corpse Pose is well deserved after such hard work. Cover yourself with a blanket and cover your eyes. Rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Maty Ezraty is the co-creator of the original Yoga Works studios in Santa Monica, California, and a former Yoga Journal Asana columnist. She travels the world leading teacher trainings, workshops, and retreats with her partner Chuck Miller. For more info, visit www.chuckandmaty.com.