Yoga can be described as a balancing of opposites. The energy that drives our practice, our breath, containing both the inhale and the exhale is a perfect example of that. When we look at a beautiful backbend, what we are also looking at is an opening of the chest. It is a radiant expression of gratitude for ours hearts and all we have to share. It takes time, attention and care to feel this good in a backbend. Often we can fall into the trap of straining to come into the shape without allowing for the chest to open, resulting in tightness or discomfort. At the other end of the spectrum, we may bend too much in the places where we need structure, which can lead to injury and pain.
Backbending is an opportunity to fine tune our personal balance of movement and the perfect place to begin is with the basics.
Come to your belly and take a few breaths there. Feel how when you exhale your belly presses into the floor. Feel the tops of your feet press into the floor, feel the backs of your legs engage, feel your bum muscles engage, feel as if you could squeeze a small block or ball between your legs. Push your pelvis into the ground until you feel a slight tucking of your tailbone. This strong sense of engagement in the lower half of your body will assist with that all important chest opening.
Now stretch our arms and hands out in front of you, palms flat on the floor . Actively drag your hands back towards your body, pulling with your finger-tips and upper armpits as if you are actually trying to move your whole body forward. Press into your palms to come to your fingertips and keep feeling that dragging motion. With your legs fully engaged and pelvis pressing into the ground, feel how your belly expands and your chest starts to naturally expand and lift. It doesn’t matter how far you come off, just that it feels good, there is no pain. With time and practice, your range of motion will increase in a healthy and sustainable way.
Keeping that memory of this feeling, we can explore different variations:
Take your hands back behind you, palms up, so that they are floating but keep them active as if the back of your hands were actually pressing into the ground. Again, keep your legs active and pelvis pressing into the ground. You neck should be relaxed. To experience that feeling of your hands dragging you forward. Roll your shoulders back so that you can breathe fully and keep your chest nice and open. You can lift your legs off the ground with engagement and feel an extension of your whole body. These actions combined will activate a lengthening of the spine.
If you are having trouble with feeling the shoulders roll back, another excellent variation is to clasp your hands behind your back and straighten your arms. Feel your chest moving away from your pelvis, going forward in space and then going upwards.
Again, it’s not about how much you come off the floor, but how it feels.
If you want to take this a little further, you can try this intermediate backbend. Keep your feet and knees apart at first if this is a new posture for you. Begin with feeling all that engagement in your legs and pelvis, then bend your knees and reach back, rolling the shoulders backward, and grab your ankles. Feel how this is posture is building on from shalabhasana. Feel how as you press your hands against your ankles and your ankles against your hands, it simulates the feeling of having your hands clasped behind your back. A new aspect this pose brings is activating your quadriceps, the front of your legs. Keep a strong engagement of your glutes and through your feet to keep the line of energy in the pose active and present.
When you feel comfortable, you can aim to bring your feet together before you reach back and clasp them. To feel a deeper opening in the chest, keep your belly and upper ribs on the floor and keep reaching the chest forward and upwards.
Shalabhasana directly informs your upward facing dog. To see how this works, first come into the version with your hands floating by your sides. Now bring your hands forward and place them palm down under your shoulders. Activate that feeling of dragging forward, keep the tops of your feet pressing down, legs engaged, tailbone tucked, shoulders rolling forward and press yourself up until you come into upward dog. Now feel your chest move away from your hips, forward and upwards.
Stay with this feeling and breathe into it, exhale chest moves forward, inhale chest moves upwards, keep rolling the shoulders back to continue to allow the chest to open.
To release after this backbending, balasana is the perfect posture. It involves a flexion of the spine and is a comforting safe place to come back to a neutral position . Take as long as you like, let your chest soften into your thighs and your thighs melt into earth. Another expression of gratitude using a contrasting set of movements. A constant balancing of opposites.