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Yoga Sequences

Asana Column: Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend)

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Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am.” But yogis say, “I think, therefore I am confused about who I am.” In the second verse of his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes thoughts as vrtti (fluctuations) of citta (mind-stuff): waves in the mind. Just as a wave-tossed sea obscures your view of what’s on the bottom, your turbulent mind clouds your ability to see what’s at the bottom of yourself. Yoga, Patanjali says, is the dissolving of the waves so you can see to the bottom. And what underlies this sea of thoughts is your true Self—who you really are.

This is not to say that thoughts are necessarily bad. Who really wants to be thoughtless? It’s nice to know your child’s name, where your car keys are, whether the clerk in the store gave you the right change. You can’t understand this article if you can’t think. As many spiritual teachers have said, the mind is a wonderful servant. But, they add, it’s a lousy master. The mind tends to be self-centered rather than Self-centered, and as such, it ultimately limits your experience of yourself and your Self.

Since Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind, a primary focus of practice is the reduction of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain—the part that is most involved in conscious thought. In fact, most of us live much of the time not just in the front of our brains but in the front part of our bodies as well. You perceive with your sense organs (jnana-indriya), which—with the exception of your skin and, to a lesser extent, your ears—are positioned toward the front of the body and are oriented toward what takes place before you. Your karma-indriya—your organs of action, which include your hands, feet, mouth, genitals, and anus—have developed to function primarily in front of you, too. What is in front of you is familiar. Behind you is the mystery of the unknown. In a very real sense, yoga is a process of moving from the known to the unknown, from the front of the brain into the back of the brain, from the front of your body into the back of your body.

You’ve never seen your back, you know. Not really. You’ve seen pictures or reflections in a mirror, but that’s not the same. Your back is unknown territory. Maybe that is part of the reason that bending over backwards seems frightening and extreme—and more than a little exciting. To do backbends skillfully and deeply, you must move your attention into the back of your body and move from the back of the body. Staying in the front of the body will create hardness in your organs, strain your breath, and heat your brain.

In some ways, Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) is the most important and fundamental backbend. This pose is the culmination of the work done in introductory backbending poses, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). Urdhva Dhanurasana is also preparation for the more advanced backbends, such as Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), and Vrschikasana (Scorpion Pose).

I wouldn’t suggest popping right out of bed and hoisting yourself up into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Your body needs some preparation to do backbends without straining your muscles, skeleton, and nervous system. Standing poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Pincha Mayurasana (Feathered Peacock Pose) are all effective for warming and opening your body for backbends. Follow these poses with some of the introductory backbends listed in the previous paragraph to create heat and mobility in your spine and open your chest and groins; then Urdhva Dhanurasana will come more readily.

To incrementally create the backbending action of Urdhva Dhanurasana, practice a supported backbend. Although the final version of Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana is a more advanced pose than Urdhva Dhanurasana, an easier variation using the support of a chair gives the front of the body the opportunity to open gradually and without strain.

To practice supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, sit with your legs through the back of a chair 2 to 3 feet away from the wall. (For padding, you may want to place a folded blanket on the chair seat so that you are sitting on one end of the blanket and the other end hangs over the front edge of the seat.)

Sit well toward the back edge of the seat with your knees bent and feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Hold the top outer edge of the chair back with your hands, press down on the chair back, and pull it toward you to lift your rib cage. Draw your inner shoulder blades down your back. Maintaining the lift of the chest, arch your back and, with an exhalation, slide your upper buttocks toward the wall and lie back on the chair seat. The front edge of the seat should be near the base of your shoulder blades; the back edge should support your pelvis near the base of the sacrum. (If you’re very short or tall, these reference points will vary.). Then stretch your legs and place the balls of your feet 3 to 4 inches up the wall, hip-width apart, with your heels on the floor a couple of inches from the wall.

You may need to adjust your chair’s distance from the wall to stretch your legs fully. If your heels don’t reach the floor, place a block under them. If you have pain in your lower back, place a rolled blanket under the lumbar spine for support and/or try a block under your heels. If you have discomfort in your neck, support your head with blankets or a bolster.

Once you’re set up, press your upper legs firmly toward the floor, emphasizing the downward movement of your inner thighs. Press the inner balls of your feet into the wall and extend your inner calves and ankles toward the wall. Still lying back over the chair, pull on the chair back with your hands and stretch your elbows toward the floor. Use this leverage to curl your upper back more deeply over the front edge of the chair. This will intensify the opening of your chest. Even though your belly is stretched, relax your abdominal muscles and breathe comfortably.

When you are familiar with this variation, you can let go of the chair back and reach your arms under the chair seat, holding the back legs of the chair to deepen your back arch. Stay for 30 seconds to three minutes, depending on your capacity. You should feel no strain in your neck or back.

To come up, bend your knees, place your feet on the floor, and hold the chair back with your hands. Keeping your chest lifted, pull on the chair back, and with an exhalation, sit up. Don’t collapse your chest as you lift, or you may compress your lumbar spine. (At first, you may need to press your elbows into the chair seat, then your hands, to lift yourself up.) Rest your chest over the chair back to relieve any tightness in your back.

In the freestanding backbends, the actions that lengthen the spine and open the chest require muscular effort. When you work on a chair, its support frees you from needing to rely on these efforts. This support gives you the opportunity to learn to soften your front body so that it can open fully and to relax your facial muscles and sense organs so that the front brain can be focused, yet passive.

Bridge Pose

Practicing Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) can help you learn to perform some of the supporting actions of the back body that were taken care of by the chair in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. These actions will be essential for you to do Urdhva Dhanurasana correctly.

Lie on your back and place your feet flat on the floor parallel to one another, hip-width apart and 4 to 6 inches from your buttocks. (If you experience discomfort in your neck in Bridge Pose, lie on a firm, folded blanket so that your shoulders are supported and your head is off the blanket.) Place your arms alongside your body, palms down. Exhale and press the inner and outer edges of your feet into the floor and move your tailbone (coccyx) upward into your body. The bottom buttocks will lift along with the tailbone; as they do, roll your top buttocks toward your knees so that your sacrum is lengthening away from your lumbar spine. Continually taking the tailbone into your body, lift your hips as high as they’ll go and lift your chest as well.

To lift your chest fully, tilt slightly onto your left shoulder. Pull your right shoulder blade toward your spine, draw your right shoulder toward the center line of your body, and roll the outer edge of your right shoulder down onto the floor. Then tilt onto your right shoulder and go through the same series of adjustments with your left shoulder blade and shoulder. Take care not to pull your shoulders away from your ears; move them toward one another instead. You should now be up on the tops of your shoulders, shoulder blades close to the spine. In this position, you’ll find that you can lift your chest much farther.

Maintaining the lift of your hips and your chest, walk your feet toward your hands and grasp your ankles. (If you can’t firmly hold your ankles or keep your heels down when you hold your ankles, use a strap, placing it across the fronts of your ankles before you come into Bridge Pose. If you experience pain in your back or knees when you hold your ankles, walk in less or not at all and use the strap.)

Holding your ankles or the strap firmly, press your feet into the floor and lift your hips. Then, by pulling against the strap or your ankles, draw your shoulder blades firmly into your back ribs and lift your chest still closer to your chin—but avoid pressing your chin into your throat. To get still more height, press your outer shoulders into the blanket and lift the side ribs near your armpits straight up toward the ceiling. Relax your belly, throat, facial muscles, and breath. Lift from the back of your body: your hamstrings, buttocks, and shoulder blades. After 30 to 60 seconds, lower yourself with an exhalation.

An Uplifting Experience

A little rush of excitement (and a little fear and dread) always runs through the room when I say that we’re going to do Urdhva Dhanurasana. No matter how imposing any journey into the unknown seems, you always begin by taking the first step. The preparatory work you’ve already done constitutes more than just a step or two toward Urdhva Dhanurasana; you are already well on your way.

Lie on your back with your feet parallel, hip-width apart, and near your buttocks. Bend your elbows and place your hands near your shoulders, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, fingers pointing toward your feet. Don’t allow your elbows to splay out to the sides; keep them aligned with your hands or your arms won’t be in line to support you when the time comes.

With an exhalation, lift your hips as you did in Setu Bandha and then lift your chest and head just off the floor. Let your head drop back and rest the crown of your head lightly on the floor. Press your palms, keeping the base of the thumb and the root of the index finger grounded, and lift your inner shoulder blades away from the back of your neck. You should not feel any compression in your neck.

With your head on the floor, press your feet into the floor and lengthen your sacrum away from your lumbar spine. Stretch your outer thighs from your hips to your knees, keeping your knees hip-width apart. At the same time, draw your triceps into your armpits, dig your shoulder blades deeply into your back ribs, and curl your chest open. With an exhalation, lift simultaneously from your tailbone and from your shoulder blades to push up into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Balance and synchronize the movement of your hips and chest. Observe those places that are dull or slow to move. If your hips are reluctant to lift, you can work with your feet on blocks against the wall to open the groins more. If your chest is slow or difficult to lift, you can work with your hands on blocks placed squarely on the floor against the wall.

If you are unable to push up from the floor, the use of some props may help you have a more uplifting experience. Place a sticky mat perpendicular to the wall. Set two blocks on the sticky mat, slightly more than shoulder-width apart, so they form a 45 to 60 degree angle between the wall and the floor. (Along with helping you get up, the angle should ease some of the strain you may feel on your wrists.) After placing the blocks, press firmly against them. You don’t want them to slip. (If you can’t position them securely, place them flat, long side against the wall.) Put blankets or bolsters on your sticky mat to support your back from your head to your hips.

Sit on the bolsters and loop a strap around your legs at midthigh so they are held hip-width apart. Lie back on the bolsters and loop a second strap around your arms just above your elbows, so that your arms are held slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on the blocks, take a breath and, with an exhalation, press your feet into the floor and your hands into the blocks—and up you go.

Or not. Students who can’t lift into the pose often think it’s because they aren’t strong enough. That’s not usually the case. More often, tightness in the upper back and/or shoulders is the culprit. If you can’t lift up, continue to work on preparatory poses for a couple of weeks.

A common mistake people make in lifting the body is to turn out the feet. This is a mistake because in addition to putting pressure on the knee joints, the outward movement of the legs narrows the sacral area and can jam the sacroiliac joints as well. If keeping your feet parallel is difficult for you, place a block or two between your feet at hip-width distance and keep the inner edges of your heels and the balls of your feet in contact with the block throughout the pose.

Into the Unknown

Once you’ve lifted up, don’t be too quick to try to stretch your arms straight. First maintain and increase the extension of your spine. Keeping your feet parallel, roll your shins and front thighs inward. Spread your sacral muscles away from your spine and take your coccyx deeply into the pelvis, moving your top buttocks away from your lumbar spine.

To intensify the inward movement of your coccyx and the upward lift of your hips, draw the backs of your thighs toward your buttocks and lift your bottom buttocks as if to bring them higher than your top buttocks.

Without allowing your hips to drop, press the inner edges of your hands into the floor and rotate your upper arms so that your triceps roll in toward the center line of the body. Draw your inner shoulder blades upward away from your neck and press them firmly into your back ribs, spreading the front ribs away from your sternum.

This may be as much as (or even more than) you can do on your first Urdhva Dhanurasana. Come down and rest for several breaths, and then go up again. If you want to make progress in this pose, you’ll have to do it more than once or twice. The first couple of Urdhva Dhanurasanas are usually like the first couple of pancakes that come off the griddle—not quite the way you’d like them to be. It takes a few repetitions of Urdhva Dhanurasana for the body to get warm inside and open up. Then the resistances begin to melt away and the pose actually becomes easier. Don’t rest for too long between repetitions or you’ll cool down, lose energy, and stiffen up.

When you go up into your second Urdhva Dhanurasana, repeat all the actions of the first one. With your spine extended and supported by the actions of your limbs, now stretch your arms to lift your rib cage still higher. When you eventually try to move your chest forward, it is important to have height in the ribs to avoid jamming your shoulder joints or compressing your mid-thoracic spine.

If it’s difficult for you to stretch your arms and lift your back ribs, try lifting your heels. The extra height this action gives to your hips may allow you to find the extra extension you need in your upper back. Do enough repetitions so that you discover this openness. Once you feel that openness (which will give you a sense of lightness in your chest and exhilaration in your mind), lower your heels toward the floor, making sure you don’t let your hips drop. Initiate this action from the tops of your calves. If you truly maintain the lift of your hips, it will be difficult for you to reach the floor. Be suspicious if your heels descend quickly and easily. You may have simply collapsed somewhere. As you stretch your heels toward the floor, stretch your arms and go on lifting the back ribs higher. If you feel the back ribs or mid-thoracic spine dropping in spite of your best efforts, come down without bringing your heels to the floor and then try again.

As your chest opens and your spine becomes more pliable, you may find that after you lift your heels you can walk your feet in toward your hands. This will deepen your pose. With the additional extension in your upper back that lifting your heels brings, take your back ribs into your body and bring your chest forward so that your shoulders come more nearly over your wrists. (There should be no compression or pain in your shoulder joints; if there is, you haven’t created enough lift.) As you did earlier, lower your heels without collapsing your hips or your upper back. With practice you may be able to walk in several steps. The more you can bring your feet and arms under you, the better the support you’ll have to create height. But it is important to bear in mind that you must maintain maximum extension of the spinal vertebrae and openness of the shoulders and groins to avoid stressing or injuring your joints.

Each time you do Urdhva Dhanurasana, keep the front of your body relaxed. Don’t harden your groins or push with the pubis. Although your abdomen receives a tremendous stretch, keep the muscles there passive. Then your breath can move without restriction and provide you with the energy to repeat and stay in the pose. (Work up to staying a minute or more.) Utilizing your breath will not only provide energy; it will help you avoid unnecessary and unwanted tension.

Although Urdhva Dhanurasana and the other backbending asanas strengthen and stretch your muscles and create mobility in the spine and the hip and shoulder joints, the real power of the poses is more subtle. They work on your nervous system, which is one of the reasons they are helpful in cases of depression.

The physical presence of your bones and muscles is evident. Your nervous system, however, is essentially unseen—like the back of your body. Since both your back and your nervous system cannot be seen, they must be perceived from within, sensed rather than thought about. And since most of the actions of the backbends occur in the unseeable back of your body, developing the power to perceive what is happening and what to do draws you from the front of your brain and your externally oriented organs of perception into the deep recesses of the back brain and the unknown corners of the intuitive mind. The flow of awareness in the practice of yoga is from the external toward the internal, from the periphery to the core, from the objective to the subjective. You must depart eventually from the familiarity and solidity of the known and embark on the great, perennial adventure into the unknown. As with the practice of Urdhva Dhanurasana, effort is required on this journey; mistakes are inevitable; obstacles will arise. As with the practice of Urdhva Dhanurasana, you must persist. If the words of the sages are true, when your spiritual travels bring you to that mysterious place where you embrace and transcend the duality of the known and unknown, you will find your Self waiting there.

John Schumacher is a certified senior Iyengar teacher and longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar. Schumacher directs the three studios of the Unity Woods Yoga Center in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.