Collapsed lower backs and protruding bellies spark most yoga instructors into a litany of verbal cues. But there may be a better way to help students translate those cues into safe, effective backbends.
Kim Weeks, founder of the Boundless Yoga studio in Washington, D.C., used to cringe as even her most advanced students fell into sloppy backbends. Today she guides her students through the subtleties of proper alignment by encouraging them to pay attention to the sensations in the third and fourth chakras.
Through her chakra yoga series, Weeks's has seen obvious improvements in her students. "People wake up more and respond when I talk about the sensations in the body," she says.
In other words, if a teacher can clearly describe the layers of the body, including the chakras, the pose becomes more accessible to the student.
It makes sense to have students feel their way rather than think their way through backbending poses. But how exactly does Weeks manage to incorporate an abstract concept out of ancient yogic philosophy into modern asana instruction?
Starting with a little background information helps. Chakras are spheres of energy located in the energetic body that emanate from nerves in the spinal column. The chakra system consists of seven major spheres, which are commonly depicted as wheels stacked along the length of the spine.
Although they are not physical entities, chakras affect the body just as thoughts affect the breath and emotions affect behavior. Anodea Judith, author of Eastern Body, Western Mind and founder of Sacred Centers, suggests simplifying chakras for beginners by introducing them as meeting points of the mind and body.
Although each of the seven chakras is involved in backbending poses, Katrina Repka, yoga instructor and co-author of Chakra Yoga, says most of the energetic action takes place in the fourth chakra.
"The fourth chakra is where the most movement occurs, and where you can find the most opening," explains Repka. She introduces the fourth chakra as the spiritual center of the heart and instructs her students to pay attention to the chest area.
Weeks gives similar instructions to her class, but prefers to place more emphasis on the third chakra. The third chakra, she says, is located in the navel and houses our sense of self—the very object that yoga seeks to transform.
Energy in Action
Once your class understands the basics of the third and fourth chakras, it's time to put that knowledge into action.
Weeks starts her backbending instructions at the core. The core muscles must be engaged before the chest can safely open, she says. Energetically speaking, a solid sense of self is a prerequisite to balanced giving and taking in a healthy heart chakra.
In her chakra yoga workshops, Judith coaches students to lift through the core muscles. "It allows for lengthening between the chakras and vertebrae, and it makes going back easier," she says.
Bending back is where it gets tricky. The thoracic region is the least flexible area of the spine. To help open the chest in spite of limited flexibility, Repka tells her students to draw down and soften the lower ribs as the abdomen is lifting up. It's a deliberate interaction between the areas of the body associated with the third and fourth chakras.
Judith best explains the energetic profile of backbending poses with Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose or Wheel Pose). "I see Wheel in particular as a delicious combination of will and surrender," she says. "Backbends require surrender, but if you're nothing but surrender, you're too sloppy to do a good Wheel pose."
Make Way for Expression
Be prepared. When students begin exploring chakras during backbends, they may experience sensations of vulnerability, grief, anger, or sadness. But Repka says it's a form of discomfort that ultimately leads to healthy transformation. "Once the emotional release happens, it makes space for the experience of unconditional love—toward both the self and others," she explains.
Now that's a transformation that just may lead to long-lasting alignment.
Melissa Garvey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. You can read more of her thoughts about yoga and daily life at her blog, YogaPulse.