The Art and Science of an Open Heart: Unlock your Deepest Backbend

At the top of every single page of my friend’s Student Handbook of Permaculture Design are three words:

Super Client: Earth

No matter whom their future clients are, no matter what the project or how much money is on the line, they’ll remember that human societies cannot thrive unless they are constructed in harmony with nature.

Just as we seek to align our individual, community and financial needs to the health of the earth, we might think of our yoga practice as having three guiding words:

Intention: Spinal Health

Moving from there we can create our own diverse menu abounding with creative flow, the flourishing of flexibility, fiery strength work, juicy pranayama and the full expression of our unique physical, emotional and energetic potential.

Like all yoga postures (asanas), aligned backbending heals the body by strengthening, stretching and toning weak and tight muscles around the spine and throughout the core that will eventually cause discomfort, pain or disease. But backbends are special category of poses that have unique healing benefits for the challenging emotions of saddness, fear and disconnection. As a result, yoga therapists recommend safe backbends as strong medicine for depression.

A grounded and balanced backbending practice is potent shamanic medicine and somatic therapy with the power to shift our state of consciousness immediately, though it’s benefits become sustainable as they are practiced over time. Like all medicine, this technology of human liberation should be approached with mindfulness as to dose and quality.

As with most psycho-somatic metaphors describing the intimate relationship between emotional states and physical posture, the saying 'armoring the heart' as a reference to a slumped upper body isn’t just a cute expression but a very real thing. Yogis have always acknowledged the connection between physical blocks in the form of tightness, instability and muscular imbalance as intricately tied to karmic blocks (granthis), manifesting as repetitious unhealthy patterns of how we treat ourselves, others and the earth in our daily lives.

When's the last time you had the pleasure of watching a young child flip them selves mindlessly inside-out like a pretzel, their legs like rubber bands? Do you remember being like that? What happened to us?

Technology has evolved must much faster than the human skeleton. We aren't designed to sit, drive, stare at screens and look down at our phones for hours on end. Slumpasa, the pose we spend most of our days in, is counter to the architectural design of the human structure, creating imbalance, weakness and discomfort.

The human animal was expertly designed to see through multiple layers and colors of forest and jungle, to climb trees and reach for food on high branches, to move consistently through a diversity movements throughout the day, carrying heavy objects, hugging and touching ourselves and others.

Thus, we approach the pretzel-like postures of our yoga practice at a great disadvantage. A far cry from our thirst for a sweaty workout, the first recorded descriptions of intricate asana (around 200 AD) were intended as spiritual endeavors, a disciplined approach to unlocking karmic knots and repetitive thought patterns that prevented our ancestors from acknowledging their oneness with the earth and all beings. Furthermore, we can be assured that their much more agile bodies slipped much more easily into these creative forms, experiencing the ecstatic blossoming of self compassion that is a possibility for all of us.

Walking into my vacation cabin in Tahoe this weekend I gasped, my breath temporarily stolen by the beauty of the translucent blue, pine-lined healing waters. Walking directly to the window to throw open the sliding glass, I pulled and pulled, stymied and mystified - it must be broken! I toyed with the unfamiliar window latch for a full minute before a heard a relieved exhale as the window relaxed from the pressure of my pulling. I threw open the glass and drank in the warmth of wild mountain air like an intoxicating liquor.

Similarly, many of us feel stymied when we explore postures like Urdvha Danurasana (full wheel pose) or Ustrasana (Camel pose). We know there's more juice to milk from the pose yet we just aren’t sure how. Some of us have grown weary of backbending entirely, as it seems to cause us nothing but pain and discomfort post-practice.

Camel Pose (Ustrasana) variation At Malanoche Waterfall in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, 2017

Camel Pose (Ustrasana) variation At Malanoche Waterfall in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, 2017

The key to unlocking the healing mechanism of pain-free backbending is to understand the simple yet ingenious design of your spinal curves.

To keep it simple, we have four curves in our spine that allow us to walk upright. The neck (cervical spine) and the low back (lumbar spine) curve towards the front of the body (called a lordotic curve), resembling the shape we associate with backbending. The ribcage (thoracic spine) and the sacrum and tailbone (sacral spine) curve towards the back of the body (called a kyphotic curve), this shape resembles a foreword fold. These four alternating squiggles balance each other out to allow us to stand.

The main puzzle piece to satisfying backbends is LENGTH and STRENGTH. Most of us take backhanding poses in the place it’s the easiest- exactly where we shouldn’t! When we do these lazy backbends we reinforce old patterns of instability and imbalance in the muscles of the front and back body. These physical patterns have corresponding emotional and psychological patterns. Strong, aligned and empowered backbends have the capacity to break the cycle of mental and emotional rigidity that prevents us from living the life we want to live, expressing our full potential and offering our gifts to the world.

Those curves that automatically tend toward a backbend (neck and low back) actually need to be lengthened in opposition to their natural tendency to squish and compress. An unskillful or lazy backbend will naturally compress these areas. Why? Because it’s EASY- they are made to do that! In fact, they might be doing that to an extreme all day long due to core and spinal weakness. Alternatively, depending on your particular tendencies towards spinal misalignment, learned from the adults around you as a child, these natural curves might be flattened from their original design for the same reason. 

As a result of these postural distortions, the corners of your vertebrae may be rubbing against each other and the protective pads between them (called vertebral disks) causing irreversible wear and tear on our bones and sacred joints that is generally irreversible and often deemed ‘part of the aging process’ (though us yogis and movement nerds know better).

We can lengthen our naturally ‘backbendy’ spinal curves by keeping the pelvis neutral instead of pooching it foreword, reaching the tailbone long towards the front of the body, and lengthening the crown of our head instead of drooping the neck and cutting off our breathing passage. As a reult, our naturally ‘foreword bendy’ curves, particularly the ribcage and chest, can unwind in the direction counter to slumpasana, elegantly stretching chronically shortened chest and shoulder muscles upwards towards the sun.

Long Spine in Full Wheel Pose (Urdhva Danurasana) at Malanoche, Costa Rica, 2017

Long Spine in Full Wheel Pose (Urdhva Danurasana) at Malanoche, Costa Rica, 2017

When the spine is aligned while stretching the front body and strengthening the back body, the energetic heart, deemed the anahata chakra, also begins to slowly unlock like a window latch. To borrow one of the most common analogies from ancient yogic texts, the heart begins to courageously blossom like a flower rising from from the mud of past suffering, disappointment and fear.

There are other important preparations required for a safe, grounded and well-rounded backbending practice, including warming up the body with conscious breathing and/or sun salutations, stretching the side and front of the body, particularly the quadriceps and chest, with lunges or the warrior series, and strengthening the muscles of the back body with poses like shalambhasana. Lastly, lying flat or with knees bent, even for a short savasana, allows the body to integrate the physical and energetic work, recalibrating a neutral spine and pelvis.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Simple Backbend to Change your Life

Honoring this potent shamanic medicine, embody the metaphor of an open heart by honoring not only the art of deep poses but the science.