Backbends in Yoga

Why Bending Back is Really Up Lifting


Contrary to what we may call shapes within the backbending category of yoga, we actually want to actually resist both going back AND bending. And why calling postures like ustrasana (camel) and urdhva danuarasana (wheel) a back-bend is truly more than a little misleading.

Backbends: A New Line of Thinking

You know, one can learn a lot about yoga from fly fishing. I listen to my husband always reminding those he takes out: Twelve o’clock! Think twelve o’clock. What he wants them to do is stop their rod in the straight up position rather than going too far back. But it’s hard to keep track of what’s behind us. Without eyesight back there, it’s like a dead zone. And why you can always tell the newbies on the river – their arms flailing and their lines, tangled in the bushes behind them.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. // Norman Maclean

Keeping a taut line on the river is critical. Think the Brad Pitt movie, A River Ran Through It – or as my husband calls it, A River Ruined It. The long loops, slowly moving through the air, lightly landing. An experienced fly fishermen can make this look like an effortless dance. But for those new to the practice, it’s more a frustrating hot mess and enough to make anyone give the sport up completely.

So it is with backbends as well … which is partially thanks to its name, really. Here we are, moving into our dead zone, blind and confused, thinking all the while the words, back and bend. So we do. Moving too far back and bending far too quickly, arms flailing and tangled painfully like new anglers on the river.

Mostly because we miss one key instruction: Twelve o’clock! Think twelve o’clock. 

The Lift Position

Most of us learned to drop back and stand up in a backbend by bending our knees forward to counter our weight as we go back.  It’s simple physics, right? Plus, we know if we bend our arms, we will not only brace our fall back when we land, but also, we can use those bent arms to push ourselves back forward, using strength and a little momentum.

All very functional … until it’s not. It is and can be part of the progression, but it’s not the end of the line. Not at all. In fact, I had to learn to reach arms, straighten legs, and attempt to make my body as long as possible before moving backwards or forwards, really. Moving my hips back to fold forward was/is a common habit of mine (and many), a hinging of the hips rather than a lift of the belly. I would do the same dropping back – moving my hips forward and losing that same lift of the spine.

In the beginning, perhaps not so troublesome. But over time, that crease turned into pain. Until one workshop many moons ago with David Garrigues. I remember him saying to me once (joking but not): “Peg! You think Robert would ever let you fish with a line as loose as that?” 

As every experienced fly fisherman knows, the key to a long, controlled and flowing line is first, find the lift.

notes from DG intensive

My notes after a workshop with David Garrigues in 2014

Time to Grow Up

Luckily there’s a learning curve (so to speak) in backbends that is built into the Ashtanga yoga method where a super complicated posture like kapotasana generally comes after we’ve already begun the process of dropping back and standing up from our feet in a backbend. Because over time, most of us will begin to learn that lift up, necessary (as opposed to just counter balancing), intuitively. Over time, with straighter legs and a lengthened body, we will look more and more for that twelve o’clock position.

Because if this is a difficult concept on our feet, once we get to our knees – there’s just no way around it: our length and lift are dramatically reduced, making finding both even MORE critical than before. Thus adding even more irony into the backbending conundrum.

Unfortunately, without realizing, most of us apply the same method to kapotasana (and ustrasana, before that) that we do to our dropbacks – thrusting forward to go back, missing the lift positing, then ending up too far back. This was me for sure. That thrust was the squeezing of my butt, by the way. And I’m talking a full on, side-cheeked crushing squeeze – which is generally the one yoga teachers warn you about. But there we are, cut off at the knees, what are we to do?

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The Under Butt

Kapotasana, one year apart.

Oh, I don’t know what it’s really called … maybe mula bandha? All I know is that in order to get that lift, you’re going to have to find it inside of you. And when I say, look – what I really mean to say is develop an unbelievable determination and grit … reaching up with everything you have … your arms, your belly, and this thing I call the under butt. It’s like your cheeks are being sucked right up between your legs with the inhale. And on the exhale, you have to lift even higher.

I know, I’m getting pretty graphic here … so maybe I should just share a few ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures so you get the idea.

Both sets of pictures are stills from a video. The ones on the left were taken in 2013 and the ones on the right, one year later. You can almost see the hesitation in the left, a holding back as well as a pushing forward. In the second set, I admittedly had a few squad members to the right of me who were cheering me on to keep reaching upward. This was the first time I ever caught my heels from the air. (And maybe the last time too, but whatever … )

But the pictures are amazingly telling. Everything about me looks longer – my arms, my legs, my whole body. Just as Norman Maclean described fly fishing: All the parts of me merged into one, with a river of energy running through.

The act of casting a fly line is really just a matter of transferring energy … If it lets the line go (relaxes the tension) the line loses its energy, just like the jump rope. // Louis Cahill

Because that really is what we’re talking about – how to make the shift from the physical body accomplishing a shape and energetically, become it. It’s a progression and for me, one that didn’t stop there.

A few years later, I’d refine this action from my feet …

And trust me, I’m not done yet. As I get older, that lift up has once again, become elusive. Which is why, as we age, it’s all the more reason we must stay with this process from whatever place we are. This is no time to get out of the water. Because of course, backbends aren’t about bending our backs at all – not literally and not figuratively either. And perhaps herein lies the greatest irony of all.

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. // Henry David Thoreau