About the Book
The 4th volume of the “Props for Yoga” series introduces the effective utilization of props to enhance and refine the practice of backbends. With detailed step-by-step instructions, accompanied by abundant photos and useful tips, practitioners can optimize their backbend postures.
The book is a practical guide that covers backbends at various levels, ranging from fundamental to highly advanced poses, ensuring that it caters to the diverse needs of all practitioners.
The book has 6 chapters:
- About Backbends
- Basic Backbends
- Advanced Backbends
- Going Further in Advanced Backbends
- Warm-Ups and Wrap-Ups Asanas
About Beckbends -An Excerpt from Chapter 1 of the Book
In an interview, B.K.S. Iyengar gave during a backbend intensive he taught (in November-December, 1991, he said these beautiful and inspiring words about backbends:
“For a yogi, backbends are meant to invert the mind, to observe and to feel—first the back, then the consciousness and the very seer. Through the practice of backbends, by using the senses of perception to look back, and drawing the mind to the back portion of the body, one day meditation comes naturally. In other poses, the attention on the back is not given to such an extent and the mind moves outside. Backbends have principles of their own and learning the workings of the mind and intelligence in backbends naturally leads one towards the real aspects of life and the higher aspects of yoga. Because I feel that one who knows, and who looks into the back can look into God. And that’s the reason I gave these backbends…
All around training is also essential, that is, the body, mind and soul have to be understood. Inversions work on certain parts of the body; standing poses work on certain parts of the body, also twistings and balances work on certain parts. But the interpenetration of the spinal nerves and spinal muscles are not touched in any other poses as they are in backbends. When we speak of the extension of the spine in backbends, it is the anterior layer of the spine which elongates, not the posterior. When you do forward bends, you are creating space on the posterior vertebral column of the spine. When you twist, you are creating room or space on the lateral parts of the spine, but so far, there are no movements to extend or expand the interior portion of the spinal vertebrae except backbends. Hence the importance of backbends cannot be measured at all. Because the anterior extension of the spine is unknown. The moment you start the backbends you are in the unknown world. Your body may be known, but your inner spine is unknown. You are entering the unknown world. So you can understand that it cannot be done by everyone…
And now to speak of the emotions—when you do backbends, what happens to the emotional center? Does it not open more? Does it not go to vastness? So as we say that the empty cup alone is useful, you are creating tremendous vastness so that it can accumulate [absorb and withstand] all types of pressures and strains. So emotionally there is no chance for a person who does backbends to get depressed or distressed. The beauty of backbends is that the person not only remains intellectually… stable… Backbends give stability, or maturity, where there’s ripeness in the brain, ripeness in the emotion. So we cannot become victims easily, those who very accurately do backbends. You can take catastrophes with a calm mind, which others cannot do. Others have to build up, but for us it becomes a natural process. We need not build up. That’s the beauty of backbends… Emotionally we can never be disturbed, for the emotional center has become an extrovert. When you do Viparita Daṇḍāsana, your head looks backwards. But your conscious mind stretches everywhere. So you must study the subject this way. You go on studying. Then you know not only is there a freedom to the spine, there is a freedom to the spirit.”
Backbends keep the body vital and agile and make the mind fresh, joyful, and light. Backbends are uplifting and induce optimism and joy; hence, they are useful antidotes for gloominess, pessimism depression and despair. 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).
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 treatmentLight on Yoga, page 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, Pl. 488 to 499, page 365
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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 bodyYoga – A Gem for Women, p. 125
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 backacheibid. p. 219
She continues by stressing the mental effects of these āsanas:
Dullness and depression vanish with practice of these āsanas, they bring courage and willpower and give mental courage to bend backwardibid
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 purep. 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 musclesAṣṭadaḷa 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 āsanaAṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol 7, p.339