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backbending breakthrough

19th April 2007 permanent link

I’m a slow learner, Part Two. (Part One here)

More backbending wisdom: at the yoga conference in Köln I went to a backbending class with Iyengar yoga teacher Rita Keller. She’s really good. Iyengar yoga is a style I don’t practice and I haven’t found the few classes of it that I’ve tried congenial. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t good for a lot of other people or that Iyengar teachers don’t know a whole lot of useful things. Especially about how to to bend backwards safely. I’ve even seen normally really hardcore ashtanga yoga purists(<ancient link from some long-lost yoga message board long ago>) recommending learning safe backbending from Iyengar teachers.

The key to safe backbending: lengthening the spine, especially the otherwise vulnerable lumbar spine. There are two things you have to do to achieve this.

  1. Pull the navel inwards & upwards. You don’t necessarily have to suck your belly in hollow – some ashtangis do practice & teach this way – but there has to be tension & intention in that direction. The navel is trying to be closer to the sternum than to the pubis.
  2. At the same time, tuck the coccyx and the perineum down and slightly forward. Or, as Rita Keller puts it in lovely German, pull the “Sitzfleisch” down.

Quite apart from whatever esoteric effects these things may have one one’s prana, nadis and chakras, they lengthen and stabilise the lumbar spine in a whole range of important physical ways:

Rita had us spend quite a lot of time at the start of the class practicing forwards and sideway bends with the abdomen held correctly. Why? I assume to get us used to moving with the torso as a single stable unit and the lumbar spine supported all the time, never letting excessive lordosis (arching) or instability creep in. When we did get into some standard backbends, with some important additional advice about generating tension the whole time with the legs rather than just pushing into position then passively staying there, I was both deeper into the positions than I normally get and more comfortable.

The relevant bit here with regard to my learning speed: every ashtanga teacher in the world tries to teach this slight-pelvic-tuck-and-abdominal-tension business to every beginner from Day One, under the title of mula bandha and uddiyana bandha. So people have been trying to get me to grasp it for ten years now. I’ve had a theoretical understanding of how the mechanics of it work at least since I read David Coulter’s anatomy book three years ago. And yet it took having it explained to me in this particular way in this class, for me to really grasp how to apply it effectively going backwards.

Maybe Rita Keller just happens to be the teacher who can explain this stuff in a way that I personally can grasp. Maybe my backbending practice has just now reached the point where I can usefully apply this information and I couldn’t before. Or maybe I’m just a slow learner when it comes to this sort of thing. Which would be fine. Yoga isn’t a race.

That Disclaimer Again: you may wish to consider whether or not taking advice about how to do difficult yoga asanas from random strangers on the internet would be a wise course of action.

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