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. 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 practise. This is why, says Senior Advanced Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden, whose backbends are renowned in the yoga world, 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 Sutras: avidya (ignorance), asmita (identification 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, author of The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health. “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 foetal, 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.
The gift of yoga allows us to shine the light of awareness on flawed thinking and negative emotional states.
“Anyone who has consciously experienced hate or fear or strong aversion will know that they feel it in the body,” says Walden. “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—practising 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 skilfully 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,” says Walden. “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 skilful use of the body, understand how the kleshas are manifesting in your life. “The key is to feel your feelings fully, and to practise with a compassionate awareness of the difficult feelings instead of pushing them away or beating yourself up for having them,” says Walden. 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, 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.”
Tightness in the shoulders is one hallmark of being in a state of avidya
This mixed-up identification is the source of all our existential angst, says Rosen, 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’, ” explains Rosen. 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 (see below) 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”.
When you’re fully involved in doing the pose, the preoccupations of the ego fall away.
Practising 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 below).
Stable in the pose, you can recognise 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 ‘coloured by’, the sense being that you are coloured by your possessions and obsessions; dvesha 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 recognise 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 recognise and then see beyond and between them, suggests Lisa Walford, a Senior Intermediate Iyengar Yoga teacher. “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, promises Walford.
In teaching Ustrasana (Camel Pose) with a block, Walden emphasises 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.” Centred, 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 recognise 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 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.
“Deep backbends invite us to face our fear head-on”
“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 practise, refine and master your alignment in simpler backbends before you tackle Upward Bow Pose (see Backbending basics, page 56). Walden believes that even though we may fear or loathe this pose, Urdhva Dhanurasana is, in fact, available to almost anyone who’s been practising 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 recognising the strength you already have. “Many women especially fear they don’t have the strength to do this pose,” says Walden. “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.”
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.
Backbend over a Bolster
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
Back Bending Basics
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,” says Rosen. “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,” says Patricia Walden. 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,” says Lisa Walford. “If you can’t keep it relaxed, the pose might not be appropriate for you.”
- Engage Your Belly, Softly. “The belly supports your pose, but it needs to be supple,” says Rosen. “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.”
- 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.