urdhva – upward
dhanu – bow
Backbending can be intense, but it is wonderfully healing. It comes at the end of the seated postures, immediately before the finishing postures in the Ashtanga Primary Series. When I was living in Scotland with an immense amount of stress, this pose brought me to tears, not because of physical sensations, but because it was releasing the worries about my sister’s health, my trying relationship, and pressures to do well in culinary school. I’d lay there after each backbend, silently trying to hold in the overwhelming emotions pouring out. When I was living in Italy, this pose would once again bring tears to my eyes because of the relationship issues and depression I was going through. Now that I am in a more stable period in my life, I do this pose without crying. Sometimes though, especially when I go weeks without practicing, it will release strong emotions which I’ve been stuffing down my throat.
This posture is essential for keeping your heart chakra open, while staying grounded to the earth. In the photograph, I’m in a partial backbend, but I always do at least three full backbends (the bow/wheel). One spring I was doing a yoga workshop in Boulder with internationally renowned yoga master Richard Freeman. We did at least five backbends and in my own practice two or three was enough. “Why so many backbends?” I asked shyly during class. Richard explained that it cleanses the nervous system and opens the psoas muscles which hold trauma. It opens up your chest, therefore opening up your heart to new perspectives. Now every time when my mind jumps in the way like a bus and tells me to just do a few backbends, I remind myself of the healing properties this pose brings. Days I do fewer backbends, I am more unstable, quick to anger, and sad. Days I practice five full backbends, I am open to new possibilities, full of courage, stable, and I can breathe. This pose lengthens your spine, relieves chronic neck and back pain, stretches the abdominal muscles, internal organs, lungs, and chest, tones your arms, legs, abs, back, wrists, and spine, stimulates the thyroid and pituitary glands, and helps with infertility, asthma, depression, and osteoporosis. It relieves stress and insomnia. Holding this for five breaths, five times, is like having an intense therapy session. You may want to cry, but it’s an incredible release of stress which heals your mind, heart, and body daily.
I like Kino MacGregor’s thoughts on this posture. You can read more about backbending in the link below. “One of the deepest lessons in the yoga practice is about brining the energy up the spine and cleansing the nervous system. Backbends thrust your full life force up through this central channel and burn through blockages along the way. When one of these blockages gets triggered it really does not matter whether you are doing a deep backbend or a beginner backbend because the emotional state that gets triggered is really of paramount importance. When things are difficult, scary and emotional it is hard to remain clam, breathe and think clearly. This is where the guidance of an experienced teacher is crucial. They can support your process, direct your body with sound instruction and finally give the process back over to you when you’re ready.”
I can’t think of a pose I dread more than boat pose. My core has never been stronger as now, but somehow my enthusiasm has run dry and I find myself just baring a grin for what feels like two thousand years just to get through the beastly pose. Right after the relaxing seated postures it comes like a bat in the night about to slap your face with its wings. Your legs are up in the air, toning your abdominals and arms, strengthening your hip flexors, hamstrings, and lower back muscles… It’s the only time of day I have a thigh gap, although everyone should know that those are irrelevant to anything important in life. I have to say though, it’s a pleasant distraction to observe my muscles toning up in the air, while they are simultaneously burning to return to the ground.
I really hate this posture. For the longest time I’d support myself with all of the weight on my sternum. One day during Mysore (traditional Ashtanga yoga un-led class as done in Mysore India), my British teacher Michael walked over and sweetly wagged his finger at me. “Emily… you can’t sit back on your sacrum. You need to lift up here, and be further up on your sit bones.” OH GOD. Just when this pose couldn’t get any worse. Now my body was in a perfect V but this was clearly working my body more effectively, with the weight on my sit bones, my hamstrings lengthening forever and ever, and my mind trying to focus on five breaths instead of death. Then you cross your legs, do a press up, and do it again. For a total of five times. That’s a total of twenty five breaths in this pose, which is essentially almost a minute of pretending like you are a boat. Certainly the most difficult boat ride I’ve ever been on, this pose challenges my sanity and perfervearance. I feel like if I make myself go through the motions of Navasana every morning for five breaths, five times, I can probably accomplish anything else I attempt that day. According to various websites Navasana increases confidence. I’m guessing it’s because you survive near-death everytime you do it. Navasana improves balance and digestion. It also stimulates the kidneys and intestines. It can help with hernias, thyroid, or prostate problems. It relieves stress (once again I’m assuming because this pose is so damn stressful that anything in comparison is easy).
For further reading, I like Zo Newell’s article on the mythology of boat pose. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-mythology-behind-navasana-boat-pose
“Ear Pressure Pose”
This pose is my happy place. First of all, it comes at the near-end of the Ashtanga Primary series. After an hour and half of stretching, pulling, reaching, toning, breathing, and sweating… this pose is just the cherry on top of the cake. I feel safe. The world is quietly shut away, by putting light pressure around the ears. In this pose, your spine is elongated and all of the vertebrae are cleansed. Your buttocks, arms, and thighs tone. It stimulates and cleanses the abdominal organs and thyroid gland. It can ease symptoms of menopause, help with infertility, insommnia, hypertension, sinusitis, and backache. In can gradually strengthen your lungs and help with asthma. It stretches your spine and shoulders. It reduces stress and gives you a sense of tranquility. In order to do this pose you should be comfortable doing Halasana (plow pose) and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand pose). This pose is intermediate to advanced so should be done for the first time with a teacher.
I am standing on my head. My elbows and wrists are pressing into the floor while my eyes are softly gazing at the thermostat on the other side of the room. Successfully, I am able to fade out the other yoga students who are bending in my peripheral vision, by way of my Ujjayi breathing, in and out with sounds like the ocean. A bead of sweat drips down between my breasts to my throat as my toes point upwards like prayers to the sky. My stomach is soft but engaged. My eyes are open but unfocused. My mind is clear but concentrated. My heart is open but upside down.
This is Shirshasana (sher-SHAH-sahn-ah) also known as headstand. By reversing the flow of gravity, the intestines, colon, and thyroid are cleansed thus improving digestion. The adrenal glands are squeezed and flushed out, allowing you to better adapt to stress. Being upside down obviously brings blood flow to the head which will enhance memory and bring mental clarity. Nutrients and oxygen are sent down into the brain, scalp, and eyes which helps prevent macular degeneration and bring blood flow to your hair follicles (amen to beautiful hair and 20/20 vision!). In order to do the pose properly you must be relaxed and engaged in the right places, bringing awareness to your center of gravity, helping you with the way you move and control your body in space, which you do, everywhere, everyday. By turning your focus inwards, it helps relieve depression and brings feelings of relaxation, peace, and happiness. It flushes out excess water built up in your legs, ankles, and feet which will prevent edema. Your forearms, core, and back are doing most of the work while only the slightest pressure is on the head. This will build strength, and as I have noticed, make your back look beautifully toned. Basically, headstand is the “King” of postures and should be done for at least ten breaths, or as the Master of Ashtanga Yoga, Shri K Pattabhi Jois likes to suggest, three hours. Ha!
It took me years to be able to do headstand. It wasn’t that I needed to build up the strength. I just needed the right teacher to poke me with the tip of his finger in the right place, and up my legs went. Now I find myself every morning, upside down, and wondering what it all means. So try this pose against a wall, and ideally with a yoga teacher. Soon you’ll be walking tall with luscious locks, perfect vision, and feeling awfully grateful you’ve learned the benefits of standing on your head.