In September this year, I will be presenting a workshop called ‘Befriending Backbends’ at the wonderful Ekam Festival. Backbends are the family of poses that people often feel passionate about in a kind of love-hate way. It makes sense to me to present a workshop that might reduce students’ fear, anxiety or dislike of backbends.
Okay, I’ll admit I’m biased in favour of these poses. As I it says in the EKAM promotion of this workshop:
Backbend poses are meant to open the heart, build courage and stamina, and give us the expansive feeling of a warm summer’s day.
But not always…and not for all people.
There’s a phenomenon that happens regarding yoga poses in the way that we relate to them as either friends or foes. It’s sometimes described as a push-pull energy.
It’s that unavoidable feeling of contraction you experience mentally or physically when your teacher says that you are about to do a challenging pose. Think about the times you’re asked to do rounds of chaturanga dandasana (the yogi’s push-up pose). Or, ardha chandrasana (half-moon pose.
Sometimes the push feeling might register as strong aversion, like a tightening in your gut or furrowing between your brows. There’s a Sanskrit term for this: dvesha. Its opposite is strong desire or clinging–known as raga in Sanskrit. Both of these may be obstacles to skilful yoga practice.
The pull sensation has you wanting to do only your favourite poses. Or, perhaps wanting to do a different kind of class program than your teacher has set out. You feel disappointed when you don’t get what you want. That let down creates tension or disconnection in your body/mind.
The thoughts that your mind generates in either of these scenarios can end up hanging around for some time. Your thinking can become compelling, so much so that you’re not present and certainly not relaxed.
An effective solution is to be with your body’s sensations, whether they generate either push or pull symptoms. One way to detach from these push-pull thoughts is to say to yourself, “These are simply thoughts. They are not the truth.” Notice if these simple phrases make you feel more at ease. Simply aligning yourself with the way things are eliminates division and paves the way for peace. It’s a great practice whether you are on your yoga mat or off it.
A colleague of mine once said that he went from labelling ardha chandrasana a nasty pose to thinking of it as a nice pose just because he decided to befriend it. Instead of investing his energy in pushing it away, in other words, identifying with his negative thoughts about it, he just ‘be-ed’ with the pose.
In the end, poses are neither nice nor nasty, but more like Shakespeare has written:
“there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so….”
Yes, definitely not always and not for all people. It’s not always a matter of the mind but rather should be based on one’s anatomical ‘make-up’. Full on back bends from an anatomy perspective, in my opinion, are generally bad. Body composition and injuries should also be taken into account. The fact of the matter is, very few yoga teachers have the knowledge of needed in human anatomy. They tell you to do poses because ‘the practice(such as Iyengar)’ tells them to do so and ‘progress’ in the practice. I do love aspects of Iyengar yoga, but like anything else, a ‘one size fits all’ does NOT work. You’d definitely have to be mindful of your own body and not allow a teacher to push you to the point of injury. It’s not ‘all about the mind or mind over matter’, sometimes there are very real issues going on in the body and most yoga teachers do not have the knowledge to ‘judge’ in what is supposed to be a non-judgmental practice. Guess that’s why you sign a disclaimer when attending yoga classes/workshops.
I agree with your comments, Keri.
I rarely teach ‘full on’ backbends. I think the emphasis in practising needs to be on exploring poses and that can best be done in simple movements where awareness is cultivated.
Lacking skills and knowledge to teach the asanas that suit the huge variety of body/minds that present in classes is a failure, too, of factory-style teacher trainings. But that is another topic!