The Myths of Backbend (4) Switch On Your Soft Power

Sep 14th, 2017

In the past issues, we have gone through various skills – power up the baby toes, fuel the legs and turbo the hips. This month, we switch to soft power – improving both strength and flexibility

Tune the Mind – Let Go of Flexibility (or Inflexibility) & Develop Soft Power

Power can be built through continued practices but flexibility is the most difficult part to develop. A less bendy spine has less space between the spinal column so that it yells out quickly for a stop once the bones “crash”. We should however face the reality that our anatomic structure comes from either birth or childhood. It can unlikely be trained, especially for adults. Then what’s the point for these people to yoga?

Let us put aside the thought of how inflexible or flexible we are and pay attention to developing the soft power.

Lots of practitioners sense no growth after years of efforts in chest opening. Little do they realise that they tend to arch too much on the neck but failing to arch on the spine. Review the method and see how the situation can be improved.

A. Review the Method – Arch your Torso, Never your Neck

An adult human head weighs between 8 and 12 pounds, which is approximately 8% of the human body’s entire mass. While you arch your neck back, the head weight gives extra pressure to break your cervical vertebra, especially when you hold the poses long.

Let’s take a look on the below pictures. Pictures 1 and 2 are the same picture from different angles. The neck arches too much but then the torso never responds to the chest opening. It is more dangerous when the chest is placed high while the arch only happens on the cervical vertebra, but not the thoracic vertebra.

When the practitioner holds a yin pose with Bouncy Castle neck bend, he/she may have a strong tendency to initiate a backbend with the head, thereby either hurting the neck or dropping the head on the floor in the worst case!

To avoid this, we have to “fasten our safety belts”.

(1) Review the drishti (May Issue). In backbend, we should always begin with the nose and look from the nose to find the chest even though it is physically not possible. Never look up or back which only encourages the neck to move prior to the chest.
(2) Don’t hang the neck. The occipital bone should always find its support either on the floor or be placed on props so as to be parallel to the floor. Check it at all times on all supported backbend, especially for those holding it long. It is the middle back or upper back to bend, not the neck.
(3) Don’t begin a backbend without ensuring a long spine. Watch your breaths, make sure it brings extra length to the navel and the chest.

In all previous issues on backbend, we explored different ways of avoiding arching the lower back and now the neck. Bending should ideally happen only in the thoracic vertebrae. Focus on opening the spine in the middle back and the upper back or any part of the thoracic spinal column.

B.Exercises for Middle Back Opening – Long Navel

1. Lie down on the mat. Place either a semi-circular block or a roller (or a yoga block or a rolled up mat) under your lower thoracic so as to lift 4~5 inches above your navel, making it the highest point of your whole body.
2. Use yoga block or blanket to level your occipital bone if it is not supported parallel to the floor.
3. Engage mula bandha, looking through the nose towards the chest to activate jalandhara bandha.
4. Now focus on the breaths to ensure lengthening. As you inhale, lengthen the navel and lower rib cage. As you exhale, keep the navel long; do not collapse the chest. You first begin this with extra awareness, then learn to convert it into body memory and use as less effort as possible to manage everything.
5. Stay here for 5 minutes or longer, with long and steady breaths.

C.Exercises for Chest Opening

Adopt all the 3 principles notwithstanding which prop you use or how high it is placed under the chest.

1. Place one block (or more if required), curl block or backbender below your shoulder blades so as to make your chest line (or 1~2 cm below) the highest point of your whole body.
2. Use yoga block(s) or blanket(s) to level your occipital bone if it is not supported parallel with the floor. The higher the chest, the higher the padding must be placed to support the occipital bone to ensure no hanging happens on the neck.

3. Engage mula bandha, looking through the nose towards the chest to activate jalandhara bandha; then start soft but powerful ujjayi breaths. Bring more prana to the chest and sternum to let it open and then soften the breaths to let everything happen effortlessly.
4. Stay here for 6 minutes or longer, with long and steady breaths.

5. In the last 2 minutes, try an armsup version regardless how high the chest is. Bend the elbows and stretch both arms out and up. Then gradually straighten them. Put props to support your hands where necessary.
6. As you inhale, focus on lengthening from the lower rib cage towards the chest and the armpits; then expend to all fingers with an attempt to touch all the nails on the floor. As you exhale, lower down the trapezius and shoulder blades towards the hip. Learn all these subtle moments in the two opposite directions mindfully in a relax manner.
7. When you release, turn the body to the side. Take out all blocks; then lie on the mat without support. Melt every square inch of the back towards the mat and stay for a minute. Release the pose, followed by a one-minute meditation. Guide the chest up in every inhalation; and shoulder blades down and widened in every exhalation. Convert all these into the body memory.

The body situation varies from time to time. Always warm up with a less intensive version for a minute or two before pursuing a new height.


D.Exercises for Armpit Opening

1. Place a chair close to the wall so that when you sit down, your knees touch the wall.
2. Place the shoulder blade close to the edge of the chair, pad it with either a blanket or a towel if necessary.
3. Lengthen the left arm, using the right hand to pull the left arm down as if you want to hyperextend the left armpit.
4. Focus on chest and armpit opening. Breathe towards the armpit and hold for a few minutes.
5. Repeat on the right side
6. Now work on both arms.



E.ETune the Mind – Long Spine vs Flexible Spine

The difference between a bendy spine and a less bendy one is the space between the spinal column. Hence, the paradox is that if one manages to enlarge all or even some of the many gaps between the vertebrae and then mindfully place the deep arch against those enlarged gaps, one looks as bendy as the more flexible practitioners. With conscious ujjayi breathing, this is possible. On inhalation, lengthen the particular segment of the thoracic spine; on exhalation, keep the spine long without collapsing, arch deep from the lengthened segment. This is the soft power you aim to develop.

F.Let’s see a standing corba.

F.Standing Cobra

We highly recommend you read through the issues from July to September, practise the various exercises so you become ready to try this. In other words, you stand with strong legs with a soft hip, without causing any jam in the lower back before proceeding to the following exercise.

1. Stand facing the wall, with the feet 4 inches away from the wall.
2. Place the palms on the wall with the middle fingers at the same height of the chest line. With strong legs, engage the baby toes, soften hip, lengthen the navel, then the chest.
3. Take at least 10 breaths to bring the chest line above the fingers, that is long navel and long chest. Move to the next steps only when lengthening is visualised. Otherwise, take more breaths or stop here for the day.
4. Push the pelvic bone and the hip bones forward to touch the wall. Remember to roll the hip continuously. Refer to the September Issue if necessary.
5. Without collapsing the chest, exhale to move to a standing corba. Don’t lose the drishti at all times or you may initiate the backbend from your neck. Watch the nose and find the chest. Gradually straighten the arms.
6. The deeper you go, the stronger legs and the softer hips you need to maintain. Don’t forget the baby toes. Come back any time as necessary.
7. Stay at the maximum for a while, attempting steady and long breaths; then inhale to release the pose.
8. Repeat the sequence several times.

Practising the standing cobra helps you keep a comprehensive inspection of which foundation is not firmly grounded. It may be a hard job to manage everything in a day but why not stay at a point where all safety belts are fastened? Transformation open happens with continuous efforts and special awareness on ujjayi breaths.

Now go back to the mat for a cobra pose. With all instructions introduced in the earlier issues, incorporate the element of long thoracic spine before arching. Either step back to the foundation or move forward to other backbend poses with the same awareness.

The greatest challenge of asana practices is the marriage of strength and tenderness. Why struggle with the judgements about your flexibility or inflexibility which you probably can’t change in this life? Switch on your soft power and let it shine from within. Enjoy the journey!


Asana Journal

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