This is an extract from Eyal’s new book (forthcoming): Props for Yoga, Vol IV, Backbends. The forth book in the Props for Yoga sequence that shows how to use props to improve and deepen the practice of backbends.
“Through back bends practice, using your senses of perception to watching the ‘behind’ and attracting the mind into the back part of the body, gradually the meditative attitude will become natural.
In other āsanas, the attention on the back is not revived to such a point that the mind shifts outwards. Backbends have principles and reveal the functioning of the mind and Intelligence. Backbends naturally lead to the real aspects of life and the higher aspects of yoga”.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā
Backbends keep the body vital and agile and make the mind fresh, joyful, and light. They are uplifting and induce optimism and joy; hence, they are useful antidotes for depression, despair, and pessimism. They also help us to age gracefully and retain our clarity and good spirit.
Backbends have an important role in the yogic path. they help us to overcome obstacles (antrāyās, see sūtras I.30-31) such as styśna (lack of perseverance), samśya (doubt), ālasya (laziness), anavasthitvāni (inability to maintain the achieved progress) and help us to overcome the symptoms of duḥkha (sorrow) and daurmanasya (despair).
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Quotes About Backward Bends
B.K.S. Iyengar wrote about the effect of Dhanurāsana:
“In this posture the spine is stretched back. Elderly people do not normally do this, so their spine get rigid. This āsana brings back elasticity to the spine and tones the abdominal organs. In my experience, persons suffering from slipped discs have obtained relief by the regular practice of Dhanurāsana and Śalabhāsana without being forced to rest or to undergo surgical treatment” .Light on Yoga, p. 102
Referring to a variation of Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana (called Viparīta Chakrāsana in Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana, he wrote:
“It tones the spine by stretching and keeps the body alert and supple. The back feels strong and full of life. It strengthens the arms and wrists and has a very soothing effect on the head…”Light on Yoga, p. 102, p. 365 (see Plates 488 to 499)
In Yoga – A Gem for Women, Geeta Iyengar writes:
“… Asanas in this section stretch the spinal column in a concave movement and are very important, as the anterior spine extends in backbends making the blood circulate more freely. The opening of the chest in these particular postures energizes the lungs and breathing becomes deep with the result that oxygenated blood circulates all over the body”.Yoga – A Gem for Women, p. 215
And then in the “overall effects”, she adds:
“The concave movement of the spine in these āsanas is somewhat unusual which is not normally found in our everyday life. They tone and train the spine and the muscles of the back to bend backwards. They rejuvenate the spine and develop physical strength and vitality. They bring freedom of movement and are ideal for those suffering from stooping shoulders, hunchback, slipped disc, stiff spine, rheumatism and backache”.Yoga – A Gem for Women, p. 219
She continues by stressing the mental effects of these asanas:
“Dullness and depression vanish with practice of these āsanas, they bring courage and willpower and give mental courage to bend backward”.Yoga – A Gem for Women, p. 219
For the more advanced, Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana and Dvi Pāda Viparīta Daṇḍāsana, she mentions the effects of using props:
“Weakness of the mind with attendant anxious states and depression is predominant among women… These two āsanas are excellent for these conditions. They have a magical effect on the mind. When practiced with support they relieve tension, relax the nervous system and rest the brain… they are of great help in keeping the body supple and active, the mind sharp and alert, the conscience clear and the soul pure.”Yoga – A Gem for Women, p. 224
In the Iyengar Yoga tradition, it is customary to teach backbends in the third week of the month and Prāṇāyāma in the last week of the month. Many teachers are familiar with students who dislike the third week (often they are the ones who like the fourth and vice versa…). This is understandable. Backbends are movements that we rarely do in our adult daily life. We bend forward (even if only to tie our shoelaces), and we twist (e.g., turning back to see who called our name). So, backbends often raise the fear of harming one’s back. Also, some of the backbends, e.g., arching from Śīrṣāsana to Viparīta Daṇḍāsana, raise an instinctive fear of going to the unknown, since when we do not see where we are heading.
However, the determined student will find that, with practice, one can overcome such fears, develop confidence and even start liking the challenge of backbends. In this way, backbends help to combat the afflictions (kleśas) of dveṣa (aversion) and abhiniveśḥ (fear) (see sūtra II.3) and develop a better discernment (vivekakhyate) regarding our abilities and limitations.
B.K.S. Iyengar used dynamic backbends when working with addicts:
“For addicts … I choose the āsana and the Prāṇāyāma which removes the emptiness, defeat and dejection in them. The standing āsana, inversions and backward extensions are very effective. Relaxing āsana like forward extensions do not help them much as their minds go towards depression. … Asana such as Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana, Viparita Daṇḍāsana, Viparita Chakrāsana … exhilarate and bring cheerfulness in them.”Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol 4, p. 102
I find these words relevant to all of us. Practicing backbends is very effective when we feel gloomy or sad or with low energy. They increase the circulation and tone the nervous system: “if you do backbends, you draw blood to the entire spinal muscles” (Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol 5, p. 219)
Of course, one should always maintain a balanced practice since: “if only backbends are performed, then the spinal muscles get acclimatized to such movements and rebel against forward bends or balancing asana” (Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol 7, p.339).