“To move forward, you may at times need to bend backward” – Anonymous
The last weekend had been super productive with my day beginning at 4am. My day kicks off with taking my dog for an hour long walk usually at 5 AM every other day but I had to move this an hour earlier to accommodate an advanced Yoga workshop I attended this weekend. I was very excited and elated at this opportunity, just like a high school kid on sports day or any other performance day! It was an early morning workshop as it is always beneficial to practice yoga esp. progressive asanas.
With an emphasis on Back-Bending Asanas (as in backward bending back postures and not forward bending asanas), Arthi mam at Anandam Yogashala took us through an informative and rather illuminating session covering:
- Anatomy of the back & spine
- Preparatory practices
- Strengthening and Flexibility Techniques
- Understanding our body through the right stretches
- Practicing awareness plus Right breathing approach
- Using props to deepen backbends and for relaxation
- Significance of Shavasana or cooling down
Although, I’ve been a part of Aanadam Yogashala just for a week now, I’d like to share a few lines about the school. ‘Anandam’ means bliss or blissful happiness and ‘shala’ refers to school, therefore Yogashala means a yoga school. I love the energy at this place and the simplicity too. As you will see in a few pictures shared in this blog, there is no glamour quotient and the venue itself is very basic yet all practitioners/students are full of enthusiasm, positivity, always eager to learn and improvise. It’s not only a great vibe to start the day with but also inspiring to see people of all age groups challenging their bodies and pushing themselves. I must say, a lot of credit goes to Arthi mam as it seems like she is never judgemental of students who come to her based on their weight, age or body structure. Everybody tries almost every asana once their body is ready for it and they are confident about themselves, of course the confidence comes after some reassuring love from mam :). This to me was a pleasant shocker as most teachers/ gurus do not allow one to practice advance postures because of age, health issues or just because you do not have enough years of yoga practice. In fact, here we are encouraged to give it a try, and then take a step back if we feel we are not ready yet. The learning here is self paced unlike most other yoga studios. She ensures individual attention to each student and works with us one-on-one. This truly cements our understanding of the postures and how to advance in it. She also helps us understand our body type, assess our strengths and progress in that area.
Key take-aways from the workshop
Sharing a few learnings from the workshop, these are just pointers and the essence of the workshop and not a comprehensive detail. Please note that for postures/ asanas, just the key points are mentioned rather than the basics of how to get into the posture as well as getting out of the posture. I have used sketches of asana images for representative purposes. You may view actual images from the workshop towards the end of the blog.
- Three key sections of the back that are involved in bending- Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar. The other two regions Sacrum & Coccyx (lowest portion of the back) are immovable.
- The thoracic region has the least flexibility esp. in adults and this needs to be worked upon.
- Each vertebrae has a neural arch – where our spinal cord passes through – and pieces sticking out where our muscles and ligaments attach to.
- Our vertebrae are naturally stacked upon each other with an intervertebral disc (or intervertebral fibrocartilage) that lies between adjacent vertebrae in the vertebral column. Each disc forms a fibrocartilaginous joint (a symphysis), to allow slight movement of the vertebrae, and acts as a ligament to hold the vertebrae together.
- To increase our flexibility, we must look at strengthening our muscles by stretching. Which muscles you’d ask? For back bending the back muscles are engaging to pull the torso backwards. The muscles in front of the rib cage lift, expand and lengthen causing the back muscles to fold over each other. As you keep going backwards the quads engage, allowing you to hinge backwards at the hips. This in turn engages the gluteal muscles as you lift the hips up toward the sky and reach back with the arms toward the ground. So, it’s the back muscles, abdominal muscles, quadriceps, a bit of the calf as well as the glutes that need strengthening.
- The back flexibility depends on our body type. There are some who are naturally blessed with a flexible back and find it easier to progress in such asanas, owing to their genes and genetic build up. However, each person can achieve the same if they are persistent enough and it may take them several years or a decade even. Therefore, it is usually not advisable for everyone to force their bodies into bending asanas esp. too early in their yoga practice.
Basic pointers to keep in mind
- Most of the postures mentioned here are advance asanas. Respect the asana and your body, do what is possible by you at this juncture of your practice.
- Practice these asanas on an empty stomach.
- Warm up your body, work out and strengthen your back thoroughly before trying these asanas.
- Do not continue if you feel pain in part of the body.
- Most of these asanas are best practices under guidance particularly if you are just getting the hang of it.
- Your feet and palms play an important role in determining the stability of your pose. The correct and firm placement/ stance of feet/ palms or both give you the confidence to hold the asana and to check self-alignment.
- Breathe throughout the pose.
- Take time to stretch out, cool down and rest your body after the practice.
Day 1 – Preparatory practices
Starting with 6 rounds of surya namaskars as a warm up & another few rounds with an increased focus on breathing right, we then proceeded with the workshop agenda. Day 1 of the workshop, we only prepared our bodies for the actual challenge that was to come up the next day.
- Bhujangasana – 1, 2, 3 was the first posture. Key points to keep in mind here are:
- Bhujangasana 1 is for cervical flexibility, Bhujangasana 2 for thoracic region of the back and Bhujangasana 3 is for lumbar flex and abdominal stretch.
- Open up the chest and heart while fully engaging the shoulder blades while raising the upper body.
- Pressing the palms firmly down, ensure the elbows are close to the body.
- The entire legs need to be engaged with the front thigh pressing into the ground.
- If done properly, you should feel the stretch between your pelvis moving up till your navel.
- Although this does not involve back bending but it strengthens the back and therefore makes for an apt preparatory pose.
- Lift up by pressing palms down (palms should be right below the shoulder and parallel to each other)
- Engage the glutes and thighs pressing inward
- Try to keep the full feet flat on the ground, without an arch. Toes must be pointing forward and not sideward.
- As a preparatory pose, we performed this asana using a chair as a prop
- First variation, keeping legs slightly apart and feeling the complete stretch in the cervical region.
- Second variation by joining the feet together. Here, the contraction can be felt in the lower back and lateral sides as the thighs press against each other.
- We also performed asana by using bricks below our palms and also using a chair as a prop..
- Urdhva Dhanurasana
- Make sure both palms and feet are firm on the ground and do not move/adjust them until you release the posture. They form the basis of stability.
- Hands must be parallel to each other and the elbows straightened out as we lift higher.
- As the abdomen is lifted higher, one must feel the stretch in the frontal portion of the body – neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis and the front of the thighs.
- The stretch is quite intense, so much so that the skin over the rib cage seems to get an expansion.
- Drop back to Urdhva Dhanurasana
- Here, instead of lifting the body from lying down position, we drop back to Urdhva Dhanurasana from standing position(sthiti) by bending backwards. This requires considerable flexibility and helps banish fear of letting go.
- Think of this as a standing Bhjang asana. Keeping the abdomen and pelvis in place, first start be bending the upper chest, contracting the shoulder blades towards each other.
- Completely open the heart and you bend backwards.
- Only once the hands are raise above the head, the lumbar region must be used to bend.
- Simultaneously, rotate the thighs and knees inward. This brings about the stretch in the pelvis to abdomen area, compressing the urinary bladder.
- Try to drop/ land the palms as close to the feet as possible.
- Once in position, fix your gaze.
- We then tried the asana by using bricks below our palms. What I observed was that the knees straighten up by doing this practice. Good technique to develop flexibility of the front thigh muscle or quadriceps.
- Drop back to Urdhva Dhanurasana can also be done using a wall as a prop. Stand with your back against the wall. Take an arm-length distance from the wall and slowly begin to bend back by placing your palms on the wall and walking them downward by constantly exhaling.
- NOTE: One can also practice half drop back till abdomen in order to loosen the shoulders and expand the chest.
Day 2 – Back-bend asanas practice
- We did three variations of Shalabhasana as warm up for the back after about 6 rounds of Surya Namaskar
- Moved on to practicing three simple variations of Shalabhasana
- 1st variation: Upper body on the mat, both legs lifted up keeping entire legs engaged. Knees straight and toes pointed.
- 2nd variation: Legs on the mat, both arms lifted up along with slight upper body life in order to hold the pose.
- 3rd variation: Lift both hands and legs up, with torso of the body on the mat.
- Performed this same way as mentioned above
- The key here is the chest to the maximum while drawing back the shoulders continually, so much that the shoulder blades meet each other in the upper back region.
- Simultaneously, the pelvis and front thighs must be persistently pressed into the floor.
- This helps achieve the required curve/bend in the back in order to touch the toes to the head.
- Do not be in a hurry to bend/throw the head backward. Bend your neck and push head back only after you have achieved full back bend. Else there is a good chance of losing balance.
- We also practice the eka pada rajakapotasana. Here we use both hands to hold up the folded leg up to the head.
- Once in position, lift your chest up towards the sky by pressing the palms against the base of the feet or ankle. Completely open up your heart and chest.
- In order to get a stretch in the pelvis to abdomen area, rotate the inner thighs inward towards each other.
- Finally throw the head backward. The head should be dropped only once the body has achieved a full stretch. This helps keep the balance.
- First we tried the one-legged dhanurasana. While lying on your stomach, hold the ankle of one leg with the respective hand. Inhale and pull the leg closer to the head.
- Get the maximum stretch in the abdomen and front thighs, while the shoulders, back muscles, hamstrings and glutes are squeezed inward.
- Now, for the complete bow pose, we use both hands reaching out to the legs and holding the ankles or lower towards the shin bone. Hold it lower towards shin in order to aid in pulling the legs closer and closer towards the shoulders.
- Keep using arm strength and leg strength to pull up the body, such that only the abdomen is on the mat.
- Try keeping the hands closer to each other.
- The hands reach out to the feet similar to what we do in Dhanurasana, however here we do not hold the ankle but we hold the toes using the base of the palm.
- By pressing the toes downward, we aim to bring both feet on either side of the rib cage.
- This can also be done one side at a time, first right & then left. This gives a good stretch to the lower limbs, while strengthening the entire back – lower and upper.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana
- Urdhava Dhanurasana on Day 2 was a bit advanced – we walked a short distance forward and backward while holding the Urdhva Dhanurasana pose. This may feel tricky at first but gets easier with practice. Lift one hand off the ground and place it a step ahead, then the other hand, followed by the feet.
- A few other variations were also demonstrated – such as holding the pose and lifting one leg up, one hand up and opposite limbs up.
- This helps strengthen the back while keeping a bend.
- In Bhujangasana 3, fold both knees to bring the feet towards the head.
- Inhale to expand chest, exhale to push pelvis and thighs on to the mat. The entire chest should puff up just as the name suggests – like a pigeon. Continue to do this until feet touch the head.
- Again, the head should be rolled back only after the maximum stretch is achieved in the body.
- You will feel the stretch in entire frontal part of the body, including the thighs and groin area.
- Supta Vajrasana
- Sit in Vajrsana, recline backward using your elbows, further lower your upper body towards the ground.
- Ensure the back is comfortably rested on the ground. Particularly the shoulder blades are fully touching the ground.
- Hands can be rested above the head, on the thighs, or just on the ground beside the calves.
- Observe the arch in the lower back and breathe normally for a couple of breaths. This stretches out the back and thighs giving them a good relaxation after the intense postures performed above.
- Laghu Vajrasana
- While in Ushtrasana (hands holding the ankles or calves), recline backwards using the support of your elbows.
- Rest the head, such that the crown of the is head is touching the ground and the neck is stretched upward.
- Hold the position and breathe.
- Assume tadasana, lift one leg to bend the knee backward as high as possible.
- Root the standing foot firmly into the floor.
- Draw the navel inwards to keep the core tight.
- Use the corresponding hand, stretch it backwards to reach the lifted foot. Hold the big toe of the foot using the fore finger and middle finger of the hand.
- The other hand is pointed straight forward, horizontal to the ground.
- Lift the leg upward using your hand to pull it. The hand will have to rotate in a way that the elbow points upward towards the sky.
- The upper torso will slightly shift forward as the body finds it centre of gravity.
- Once your body find a good balance, use both hand to hold the lifted foot. At this stage the foot will be right above the head.
- Gracefully come out of the pose, by releasing the foot to the ground.
- Viparita Dandasana
- In Shirshasana, find your balance at first. Bend backward from the waist region with the legs aiming for the ground.
- With focus and control, bring the legs down completely on the ground. Place the feet firmly down.
- Keep feet together with base of the feet flat on the ground.
- This pose requires considerable strength, agility and flexibility. Therefore, it should be performed under the guidance of and expert yoga teacher for a couple of times before practicing by yourself.
- Pincha Mayurasana
- Since many of us were beginner to intermediate level, we tried a modified version of this asana. WIll forearms solid on the mat about shoulder width apart.
- Make sure your gaze is fixed between your wrists throughout the asana.
- Now using the momentum, lift the torso and legs upwards and placing them on the wall.
- The upper torso and hips must be aligned with the shoulders along a virtual vertical axis. Avoid curving the back as you lift the legs up.
- In continuation with the above posture of Pincha Mayurasana…. Once the feet are well established on the wall, slowly walk your feet downward by pushing feet against the wall and aiming for the head.
- Exhale, lower and lower keeping the arm balance strong.
- As the feet move lower, there will be point at which only the toes are pressing against the wall. At this juncture, turn your toes inward such the nails on your toes and the entire front feet plus ankle is against the wall.
- If possible, bring the feet and head closer to each other, the feet can be placed on the head.
- Viparita Shalabhasana
- This asana requires a good amount of strength and was demonstrated to us by a fellow practitioner.
- Lie down on your stomach, feet together.
- Bring your palms under your groin and interlock the fingers to place them firmly pressed against the mat.
- While pressing the fists into the mat, inhale to lift your legs and upper torso towards the sky.
- The weight of the entire body is on the chin, throat, front of the shoulders and the arms.
- Breathe throughout the practice.
A few postures to relax the back, stretch it out and some forward bends to balance it out.
- Sethu Bandasana
- The bridge pose with arms folded across the shoulders (image does not show arms over
- The feet are firm on the floor, hip width apart.
- The back and upper body is raised up like a bridge.
- We did a dynamic version of this just to ease the back – rising up and touching the hips down for a few counts repeatedly.
- Karana Peedasana
- Assume halasana, bend the knees to bring them beside the ears.
- Pressing the hands and wrists on the floor, adjust your legs further to be able to close the ears with the knees.
- Flex the feet, so that the heels are facing the sky.
- Hold the posture, enjoy the stretch in the back and spine while breathing normally.
- Ashtanga Namaskara
- Here, again we practiced a modified version for a more relaxing feel on the back.
- While in ashtanga namaskar pose, walk your knees forward so that the knees come right below the hips.
- The hips are facing upward towards the sky.
- This also stretches the thighs, chest, throat and relaxes the neck area.
Significance of Shavasana
Shavasana or the corpse pose is given extreme importance in yogic literature. Depending on the extent of work out the body has undergone on a given day after asana practice, correspondingly equal amount of relaxation needs to be provided to the body. While lying on the back, palms facing the sky, the entire body is completely relaxed. Try to adjust your body such that maximum surface area on the dorsal side of the body is in contact with mat. Observe every single part of the body one by one, also noticing the blood circulation and stimulated sensation in the body. Feeling the earth below, fully ground yourself and experience the stillness in your mind and body.
Shavasana and a good relaxation practice ensures that body is well rested, without which if one continues with day-to-day activity, there is a chance of muscle fatigue or injury at times. Always give your body the needed rest, love and respect!
Here are some of my pictures from the workshop 🙂
To see more pictures from the workshop and some genuine gyaan on yoga plus self learning, check out Anandam Yogashala’s facebook page.
PS: All images used in the blog are subject to copyright. Taken from google images