Mindful awareness

Friday, August 5, 2011

Many Sides of Backbending

This week my students and I have practiced backbends. Lots and lots of backbends. We included warm up versions of bhujangasana (cobra pose) and salabasana (locust pose), practiced many repetitions of urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose), and went deeper into dhanurasana (bow pose). We practiced the backbends one would expect in this group including ustrasana (camel pose), setu bandhasana (bridge pose), and urdhva danurasana (wheel pose).

Why work on so many backbends? In yoga philosophy, the asana (poses) practice is only part of yoga. If there is an objective to the physical practice it is basically to make the world a better place one person at a time. We practice to awaken our consciousness to the unity of all beings. Part of this awareness includes compassion and gratitude. According to yoga philosophy, the anahata chakra (heart center) lies beneath the sternum (breastbone). By practicing backbends, the yogi awakens and becomes aware of this center, allowing compassion and gratitude to flow.

Yoga practice does have physical benefits as well as the philosophical benefits. In addition to all the backbends we worked on poses to strengthen the abdominal muscles like plank, forearm plank, and chaturanga dandasana (low plank pose). We practiced poses intended to stretch the chest and shoulders like gomukhasana (cow face) arms and garudasana (eagle) arms. I included these stretches in the classes to support the backbends with the objective of countering the rounded postures of daily life.

Most of us sit at desks and computers or drive much of the day. Hours of these sitting activities contribute to a rounded upper back with tight muscles around the chest and front of the shoulders. The other side, the upper back muscles, becomes long and weak. Practicing backbends helps to correct hours of sitting by stretching the front of the body and strengthening the back of the body.

Our backbend practice this week can help to prevent repetitive strain injuries by stretching what is tight and strengthening what is weak. But we spend many hours in poor postures and it will take more than a weekly yoga class to reverse the tight chest and shoulders and weak upper back. It helps to take stretch breaks each hour with gomukhasana (cow face) or garudasana (eagle) arms.  We need to be aware of posture all day long in addition to participating a yoga asana practice or gym resistance training and stretching regimen. We can help to correct rounded postures by being mindful throughout the day of drawing the scapula (shoulder blades) onto the back and opening the clavicles (collar bones). Along these lines we can consider almost any pose or posture as a backbend. Even in navasana (boat pose) the correct alignment is to draw the shoulder blades onto the back and to lift the sternum up toward the ceiling. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose) also is done with a slight backbend with the sternum reaching through the upper arms. Most yoga asanas support good posture by shining the sternum forward rather than collapsing the trunk thus rounding the spine. 

Any of these poses can help to stretch and strengthen as well as to feel compassion and gratitude. Practicing so many backbends this week has certainly awakened my now slightly sore upper back muscles. It also has made me think more about how grateful I am for the students that come to my classes to share their practice with me and to all the people that read my blog posts. Thank you to all of you!

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