Here's a question worth pondering: Are backbenders born, or made?
There are those, of course, who make it look easy, who have the seemingly genetic gift of backbendiness—surely a grace of God. These yogis are beautiful to behold, dropping back easily into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) as a warm-up, then transfixing everyone by doing poses most of us will only dream of: full-on Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose), Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose). Such breathtaking backbends inspire a sense of awe and show clearly why these types of poses are so often referred to as "heart openers."
But yogis who can do these poses easily and happily are a rare breed indeed. Most of us (maybe you? certainly me!) have a much more fraught relationship to backbends, having to ease slowly and carefully toward spinal extension, grappling with inflexibility, imbalance, and discomfort all the way. We struggle—not only with alignment basics and bodily limitations, but also with our judging minds and grasping egos.
For us, these heart openers feel more like a Pandora's box, unleashing confusion, attachment, aversion, and even fear. Because backbending requires such intense mental and physical effort, many of the poses in this category bring up our "stuff" and put it right in our faces. Our inner turmoil and struggle are likely to be on full display and vying for our attention in every backbend we practice. This is why, says Senior Advanced Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden, whose backbends are renowned in the yoga world (check out her beautiful standing backbend on this month's cover!), backbends are the ultimate opportunity to experience yoga in its fullest expression—as a practice that works and trains body, mind, and spirit in nearly equal measures.
Trial by Error
In the classical yoga of Patanjali, the kind of existential suffering we experience in backbends is an undercurrent in our lives, rooted in the kleshas, or "mental afflictions." The kleshas arise through our tendency to misperceive our true nature
and the nature of the world around us. There are five kleshas, as outlined in the Yoga Sutra: avidya (ignorance), asmita (identi-fication with the ego), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion), and abhinivesha (fear, specifically of death). Avidya is thought to be the root klesha; the other four, its ramifications.
"Simply put, the kleshas are the things that darken the heart," explains Walden, who is also the author of The Woman's Book of Yoga and Health and founder of BKS Iyengar Yogamala in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "They are the cause of all human suffering." These kleshas are experienced in the chest, Walden says, which is why taking the time for a practice of heart-opening backbends is perhaps the best way to get in touch with and observe them directly.
That's a construct, of course; the kleshas are abstract, everywhere and nowhere, as present in forward bends and twists as in backbends. We all know this—when we feel a strong emotion, we experience it in our bodies. When we feel fear, we go fetal, rounding the shoulders and slumping forward instinctively to protect ourselves. When we experience desire, we open like a lotus straining for a beam of sunlight.
"Anyone who has consciously experienced hate or fear or strong aversion will know that they feel it in the body," Walden says. "From many years of working with people with depression and anxiety in the full grip of the kleshas, I know that these emotions are experienced as restriction or tightness around the heart or the diaphragm."
It is a gift of yoga (though it might feel at times like a curse) that the poses allow us to use the body to shine the light of awareness on our flawed thinking and negative emotional states. It might sting, the way that inner growth often does. But if we can embrace the kleshas through backbends—practicing them with sincerity and intention—then we've got a real shot at a better understanding of ourselves, self-acceptance, and a path toward acting more skillfully in the world.
And even if you're in full thrall to the kleshas—down, troubled, lonely, depressed, fatigued, hopeless, stressed, or riddled with anxiety—consider the practice a way out. "I have suffered myself," Walden says. "I would never say that backbends cured my depression, but they helped me pierce through the dark clouds of emotion."
Walden developed the short sequence that appears here to bring that kind of clarity to practitioners at every level of ability. Incorporate it into a larger practice, or do it on its own as a way to ease into your backbending discomfort zone and, through skillful use of the body, understand how the kleshas are manifesting in your life.
"The key is to feel your feelings fully, and to practice with a compassionate awareness of the difficult feelings instead of pushing them away or beating yourself up for having them," Walden says. To that end, it's worth shining a bit more light on the five afflictions.
Avidya: The Root Klesha
Like so much else in yoga, the kleshas aren't simple or linear. They are interwoven, coexistent, and ever present. But most teachers agree that avidya is the source klesha, the one that underlies and feeds all others. Walden likes to translate avidya as "spiritual ignorance," noting that avidya is the breeding ground for all the other kleshas, and the other kleshas are rooted in the soil of avidya.
Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California, and a contributing editor to Yoga Journal, tackles the concept with a pop-culture spin. "It's self-misidentification; you're identifying with the small self, rather than with the capital S universal Self," he says. "You think you're Clark Kent, but really you're Superman."
This mixed-up identification is the source of all our existential angst, Rosen says, at the bottom of all our fretting about who we are or why we're here or what life is all about. We are, yoga teaches us, all interconnected, one eternal undying soul. Ideally, we'd relax into the knowledge and open easily to universal truth. But our feelings of individuality, our avidya, cause tension in the body. "If you see yourself as separate, you generate all kinds of muscular actions intended to protect yourself and to make sure you're not being invaded by 'others,' " Rosen explains. Tightness in the shoulders is one hallmark of being in a state of avidya, as is restricted breathing—both of which are common hindrances to backbending.
Walden offers a supported backbend to "cajole" the body into practice and offer a safe and supported space in which to open to the process of self-exploration. From this stable place, you can allow your fluctuating thoughts (the vrittis that Patanjali refers to) to calm down so that you can see yourself more clearly. Let your fear, your aversion, your ego, your attachment—the other kleshas—arise and fall away.
Asmita: Who Are You?
Ah, the ego—you can't live with it, and you can't live without it. As a klesha, asmita is another aspect of avidya. Not only do you see yourself as separate, but you also think you're large and in charge. You think that the shape and depth and beauty of your poses matter, and that they reflect your prowess or worth. You think it's all about you.
In a way, it is, says the Tantra scholar and professor of religion Douglas Brooks. "Ego isn't necessarily all bad," he says. "It gives us personality. It's what tells us not to touch the fire. We need ego; that's why we have it. But we suffer when we fixate on this disconnected 'I am'-ness, and it turns into vanity, narcissism, and control." The net result is that we obsess about what we can or cannot do—struggling with all the details of our efforts rather than surrendering to what Brooks calls "universal support."
Practicing Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) allows you to work with asmita in a positive way—by engaging your willpower just enough to create a sense of safety while offering you a clear chance to let the earth support you, the breath lift you, and gravity do its thing (see page 87).
Stable in the pose, you can recognize all the false messages your ego is sending: about your flexibility, your strength, your endurance. You may find yourself concerned with how you stack up to others, whether you can do this one second longer. Give such thoughts over to the experience of the pose.
"When you're fully involved in doing the pose," explains Jarvis Chen, certified Iyengar teacher and Walden's assistant, "the preoccupations of the ego fall away, and you inhabit the present moment."
Raga & Dvesha: Two Sides of a Coin
Raga and dvesha—that is to say, attachment and aversion, respectively—are often paired. And rightly so, says Rosen, who views them as two sides of one coin: desire.
"Raga means 'colored by,' the sense being that you are colored by your possessions and obsessions; <emdvesha is 'being repelled or experiencing repugnance,' " explains Rosen. "Both have to do with the basis of human suffering—you want something you can't have, or you're stuck with something you don't want. Or you get what you want—only to find that it doesn't last."
As you move into a backbend, these twinned kleshas will be right there ready and waiting for you—if the pose is especially easy for you, you'll want to do it; if it's difficult, you'll want to avoid it. Or maybe you'll have a love-hate relationship with it. All of these responses arise from the interplay of raga and dvesha and are influenced, of course, by avidya and asmita. We think "we" want or deserve to have or not have it; in this way, we fail to recognize the interconnected constancy that underlies all things and experiences.
Whether raga or dvesha is your tendency in any particular situation, start to develop the awareness and capacity to recognize and then see beyond and between them, suggests Lisa Walford, a Senior Intermediate Iyengar Yoga teacher based in Los Angeles and the curriculum director of the teacher training program for YogaWorks. "The Upanishads speak of the difference between the pleasant and the good," she says. "Immediate sense gratification is the pleasant, whereas the good is what is truly nourishing for our body and soul." Whether you find yourself craving a backbend or feel yourself wanting to flee, a conscious embrace of the practice will create the good and nourishing experience, Walford promises.
In teaching Ustrasana (Camel Pose) with a block, Walden emphasizes getting in touch with the inner support that you need to ride the waves of desire. "Using a block helps create movement in the upper back and eliminates a sense of constriction in the lower back," she explains. "You're lifting yourself from the heart, and that's the key." Centered, stable, and radiant in this uplifting variation of Ustrasana, you can withstand flash floods of raga and dvesha—with only a simple block as a life vest.
Abhinivesha: Fear of Flying
If all kleshas start with avidya, they end with abhinivesha, the other psycho-emotional biggie. This is typically translated as "fear of death," though Walden likes to think of it as "primal fear" in all its forms (including a fear of backbending).
To learn how to recognize and overcome fear, you must be willing to grapple with the other kleshas and to surrender your ignorance, your desire, your egoic interests. A pose like Urdhva Dhanurasana puts the pedal to the metal. "Deep backbends invite us to face our fear head-on, to walk right up to the precipice," says Kelly Golden, a yoga teacher trainer based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a longtime student of ParaYoga creator Rod Stryker. "You know that you have to take a leap of faith, and either you'll fall to your death or you'll really fly.
"Ultimately," she says, "you can't control, you can't resist—you have to step out of your comfort zone and trust in the universal." Scary? Yes. But, Golden says, "it's an invitation to wake up to the fullness of your current experience."
Which is not to say that you needn't take your time to practice, refine, and master your alignment in simpler backbends before you tackle Upward Bow Pose. Walden believes that even though we may fear or loathe this pose, Urdhva Dhanurasana is, in fact, available to almost anyone who's been practicing for about two years. This sequence was created, in part, to prove that. The practice of Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand) is critical to facing the challenge of both building strength and recognizing the strength you already have. "Many women especially fear they don't have the strength to do this pose," Walden says. "Half Handstand shows them that they do."
Know that you can—then do: Urdhva Dhanurasana is one of the most beneficial poses in yoga. Because it is so invigorating, uplifting, empowering, and expansive, it may be the ultimate pose to help you pierce through the kleshas, according to Walden. "Backbending opens you up to everything and everyone around you, and it puts you into a receptive state," she concludes. "And that's a good thing."
Mustering the willingness to approach backbends might be more than half your battle, but you can't dive in without attending to your alignment and observing some safety basics. Here, our master teachers offer some pointers to help you create stability and deepen the quality of your experience in any backbend.
Keep Breathing: "Backbends are poses in which people tend to hold the breath, but that creates rigidity," Rosen says. "Keep breathing. That's really the main thing."
Keep Your Lower Back Long: "If you bring your tailbone in as you focus on relaxing the buttocks, you can avoid feeling pinched in the lower back," Patricia Walden says. Richard Rosen suggests envisioning lengthening the tailbone toward the heels and away from the back of the pelvis.
Relax Your Jaw: "A quiet, soft jaw creates a sense of neutrality that allows you to safely approach backbends," Lisa Walford says. "If you can't keep it relaxed, the pose might not be appropriate for you."
Repeatedly Roll Your Shoulders Back and Down: Keep the "shoulder-girdle wheel" rotating away from the ears, suggests Walford. This will help you keep a neutral curve in the cervical spine.
Engage Your Belly, Softly: "The belly supports your pose, but it needs to be supple," Rosen says. "If it starts to harden, it will restrict your breathing."
Work Your Arms and Legs: "Backbending isn't all about the spine," says Jarvis Chen. "Use your arms and legs to actively support your pose."
Hillari Dowdle is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Embrace the Kleshas
This sequence by Patricia Walden offers the opportunity to work with the kleshas as they arise in your backbending practice. Observe what it feels like when you tune your awareness to your mental and emotional patterns in these powerful poses.
Begin to See Yourself Clearly: Backbend Over a Bolster
Place a bolster horizontally on a mat, and sit in front of it with your knees bent. Lie back on the bolster so that it supports your middle and upper back. Support your head and the back of your neck with folded blankets. Your chin should not be higher than your forehead. Turn your palms up and let your arms rest on the floor about 45 degrees from your body. Keep the buttocks lengthening away from the waist as you straighten your legs. In this passive backbend, allow yourself to accept the support of the bolster so that your chest becomes broad and expansive. Observe whatever emotions or thoughts arise, whether negative, positive, or neutral. To come out of the pose, bend your knees, roll off the bolster and onto your side, and sit up.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Lie on your abdomen and place your palms on the floor beside your ribs. With an exhalation, straighten your arms and lift your chest, hips, and knees off the floor. Keeping your legs straight, press the tops of your feet into the floor and slide your hips toward your hands so that your chest moves forward between your vertical arms. Roll your shoulders back to lift and expand your chest as you take your head back. Feel how you are cultivating willpower in the arms and legs to create a positive change in the chest. Hold Upward-Facing Dog Pose for 1 minute. Then bend your arms and lower yourself all the way down to the floor.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Kneel with your hands on your waist. Press your shins into the floor as you draw your tailbone down and lift the top of your rib cage. As you begin to arch up and back, place a block on your sternum and actively lift your chest into it, without letting your thighs slant backward. Maintain the lift of the chest and continue to draw your tailbone down as you deepen the back arch. If you can, take your hands to your heels and press down through your hands to raise your chest into the block. Stay in the pose for several breaths. By lifting your chest into the block, you are learning to lift yourself up from within. Notice if having your chest in contact with something tangible like the block helps you feel stable and confident enough to release your head back into the unknown. To come out, press your shins into the floor, release your hands from your heels, and with an inhalation, lift your chest.
Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand)
Sit facing a wall, with your legs straight and your feet at the wall. Mark the distance of the sitting bones from the wall. Stand up, turn around, and come to your hands and knees facing away from the wall. Place the heels of your hands where your sitting bones were. Spread your palms and straighten your elbows. Place the ball of one foot on the wall a little higher than the hips. Then, walk your feet up the wall and straighten your knees so that your legs are parallel to the floor, and your hips are over your shoulders. Press down through your hands and keep your arms and elbows firm. Straighten your legs and press your hips and thighs up toward the ceiling. Take your gaze between your hands. Maintain a strong, straight line from the hands to the shoulders to the hips, and stay for several breaths. Feel the power in your arms and the determination needed to stay in the pose. Then, with an exhalation, bend your knees and step back down to the floor. As you continue to practice this pose, you can gradually increase the time you spend in it, and you will find that your strength and confidence will also build.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
Having practiced the other poses, you have all the necessary pieces to do Urdhva Dhanurasana. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-width apart, heels close to your buttocks. Bend your elbows and place your hands on the floor next to your ears, with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Hug your elbows toward your ears and keep your upper arms parallel. If this is difficult, try turning your palms out a little bit. Now press down through your hands and feet, lift yourself off the floor, and straighten your arms. Lift your shoulder blades toward your waist and the backs of your thighs away from the floor. If possible, look toward your feet to deepen the upper back arch. Maintain this position for several breaths, keeping your eyes open and your chest fully expanded. Feel how, when you are totally involved in doing the asana, you can bypass the preoccupations of the mind and let your heart's intelligence radiate from within. In moments like this, you are able to see yourself clearly and experience the joy at the core of your being. When you're ready, exhale, bend the knees and the elbows, and tuck the chin to come down.