When I first discovered yoga, I was blissfully unaware of how stiff my body was. My teachers (I have had many) were all very different from each other in their approach to yoga, and the student, and therefore each one gave me something unique, something to think about, but most of all, the impetus to keep on practicing. One of my teachers usually taught asana in groups – such as forward bends, backward bends, sun salutations, salutations to the moon and so on. And on one particular occasion, we picked backward bends as the subject matter for discussion and subsequent practice. I was amazed at the hidden symbolism of postures and how much I had taken myself – body and soul - for granted.
One of the key points of discussion was about how backward bends cure excessive introversion by physically turning the chest out and encouraging inhalation. These postures are done opposing gravity and hence require physical energy, focus and muscular strength to perform and hold. Moreover, any deeply ingrained introversion and excessive keeping to oneself would start getting broken down by bending backwards – an open chest signifies the confidence to open up to the world and holding one’s own without feeling “exposed”. They are supposed to induce in the practitioner a feeling of being able to receive life with open arms and complete acceptance. On a physical level, the spine has much to gain from these postures, especially with respect to nerves originating from between the vertebrae, which get strengthened.
The spinal column is an anatomical assembly of discs and vertebrae. A number of muscles are involved in keeping it together and holding it up. If these muscles are to be well maintained, then backward bending postures are all important. They correct postural defects, which further affect the muscles negatively. Other neuro-muscular or skeletal imbalances resulting in a range of painful conditions (sciatica and slipped disc to name a few) will start manifesting. It is believed that the health of the spine determines the health of the entire being – physical and psychic alike. Therefore, postures that strive to bring the spine to health are bound to affect the entire system positively.
The thing to remember while doing asana, backward bending or otherwise is to correctly apply breath so that entire muscle groups contract consistently and the movement in general is propelled by breath.
Another thing worth noting is that impure blood often collects around the spine due to posture, leading to listless circulation. Backward bends take care of that very effectively. These postures apply the kind of pressure on the abdomen that ensures good digestion, elimination and the general well being of all organs in that region. The organs in the pelvis also get healthy and due to the fact that the muscles in that area get a good stretch.
The most important lesson, however, that I took away from this class was that just because the spine is at the back, I should not forget all about it. It holds my body together. Why, it even holds my mind together. I can stand, walk sit or run because of it. In a way, my whole life depends on it. So I’d better love it, revere it and bend backward to keep it healthy!