“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” – Rumi
A set of heart-opening poses may be the very most important piece of the yoga asana puzzle. Here are three reasons to lead with your heart:
#1: Emotional and Physical Revival – Psychologically, backbends can teach you receptivity, acceptance, compassion, and determination. Physically, backbends correct our tendency to hunch. Especially in this era of increased computer and cell phone usage, our “tech necks” and upper backs are in dire need of lengthening.
#2: Beat Bone Loss – The act of spinal extension or back bending can help to prevent or slow down the effects of osteoporosis or bone loss. Gentle back bends such as Salabasana (locust pose) or supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose) were included in a long-term study of osteoporosis reversal (click here for details).
#3: Energizing – Back bends bring energy into our subtle heart centers. The heart or anahata chakra stimulates our love for self and others and permits our brilliance to shine. Often times in class following a back bend, I can feel my students’ positive energy level come alive.
The final week of April is upon us. And all around are signs of new beginnings, new openings and new creations; from the buds in the trees to the baby calves in the fields.
This week, I encourage you to take these signals of Spring and apply them to your yoga practice.
Each day as you roll out your mat, mark the action as a starting place for unfurling your body. Dedicate yourself to expansion, to clearing out those winter cobwebs and stimulating new growth.
Back bends are capable of generating many openings. The front body, heart center and lungs, as well as the abdominal area all benefit from the practice of back bending. As a result our posture improves and we are able to pump blood and nutrients more effectively throughout the body, expanding our lung capacity and unblocking our digestive system.
Clear Out the Cobwebs
The cooler temperatures keep us bound both literally and figuratively. In shedding our winter coats, we remove old deposits and unbind ourselves emotionally. The simplest forms of back bending are known to trigger release and improve clarity.
Stimulate New Growth
When we make space for ourselves physically and mentally through back bends, we give the body room to flourish. We discover that we have the capacity for more energy to flow within. With this newfound energy, we experience greater joy in our lives.
Sounds amazing doesn’t it?
Although back bends are the perfect opportunity for unfurling yourself, this task is not taken lightly. In general our bodies are resistant to opening. We are fearful of bending back into the unknown and exposing the front of our bodies. This is instinctual. Think of the way many animals behave in nature. The “underbelly” holds critical systems without which we could not survive. So we protect and naturally draw inward. Therefore, we should begin a back bend practice slowly so that the action is easily accepted by the body. Like the fern in the forest, you will be unfurling yourself open, bit by tender bit…
So let’s get started! The following poses are fine to do alone or along with your usual practice.
Day 1: Restorative Back Bend Create a small roll with a blanket to place underneath the body just at or below the shoulder blades. Lie supine on the roll (your arms should stretch out just above roll). While it may be slightly uncomfortable at first, your body should accept the opening. If it is too intense, try bending your knees or decreasing the height of the roll. Stay in the pose for 3-5 minutes.
Day 2:Ardha Salabasana or Half Locust Lie on your stomach. Keep your pelvis and legs on the floor and as you inhale begin to lift your torso up off the mat. Be sure to draw your shoulders away from the floor and keep your head in line with your body to avoid overstretching the neck. Keep your arms extending along your sides and press your fists into the floor, thumbs toward the body. You can either keep the movement as a flow; inhaling as you lift and exhaling as you descend or maintain the lifted position, breathing as you hold.
Day 3: I call this one Purvottanasana Prep or Reverse Plank Prep From a seated position, place your hands behind you so that your fingers are facing forward just outside and behind your hips. Bending the elbows, exhale and allow your front body to collapse and sink back. As you inhale, straighten your elbows and press your sternum forward to expand the front body. Repeat for several rounds. You can make slight adjustments or increase the action by bringing your hands further back.
Day 4: Setu Bandha or Bridge Vinyasa This posture flow begins with a gentle pelvic tilt. Lie on your back and bend your knees. As you inhale, arch the lower back, keeping the sacrum/tailbone area connecting with the ground. Exhaling, press that same lower back area into the ground. Bit by bit, increase the lift of the pelvis and begin to roll the shoulders under to lift the belly and chest further off the floor. Once you have flowed sufficiently, begin to decrease the height of the lift graduallly until your sacrum returns to the ground. Spend some time in constructive rest pose with your feet spread widely apart and your knees resting together.
Day 5: Urdhva Hastasana or Upward Hands Pose Begin standing in Tadasana or Mountain Pose. As you inhale, lift your arms up from the sides and bring them up above the head. Lifting from the sides of the body, gently draw the upper back forward, looking upward if it is appropriate. Exhale the arms back down to your sides. Repeat for 5 breaths.
These are wonderful postures to begin opening up the front body. Proceed with awareness and utilize the breath to deepen the effects. Enjoy!