Backbends and the Chakras
Katrina, what are some of the most common mistakes (or misalignments) you see in your students during backbends?
When executing a backbend, the aim is to find the “bend” through the thoracic spine, which requires a lot of flexibility in the upper back, as well as openness through the entire front of the body, and, in poses like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel), the shoulders. Many students make the mistake of overarching through the lumbar spine (lower back), which causes the ligaments that support the spine to become slack and creates too much pressure at the center of the lumbar arch. The other common mistake is overarching in the cervical spine (neck) by throwing the head back, when the neck should be lengthening.
Which chakras are the most involved in backbends?
All of the chakras are involved in a backbend, because it requires each of the segments of the body to be properly aligned and in balance in order to be done correctly. However, the heart chakra (Anahata) is where the most movement occurs, and where you can find the most opening.
What are some of the common feelings/sensations your students report during backbends?
Anahata chakra is the emotional center, so during backbends students often experience emotional release (grief, anger, sadness). Once the emotional release occurs, it makes space for the experience of unconditional love (both towards the self and others).
How do you determine if students are experiencing healthy discomfort or potentially harmful pain?
Emotional discomfort in backbends can be quite healthy, because it helps to catalyze release, but we have to be careful with physical “discomfort,” because each person’s definition of discomfort is different. It is too easy, especially for beginners, to mistake pain for discomfort and push beyond their limits. Every posture should be as easeful as possible and move the student from dukha (variously defined as “lack of space,” “obstructed space”) to sukha (“freedom,” “spaciousness”).
Is the breath important in performing backbends safely and effectively?
In all asana the breath is key. In backbends we rely on the breath to take us safely into the posture, and also to make sure that there is the right amount of exertion (if one cannot breath smoothly and comfortably, then it is a sign to back off). We also use the breath to move us deeper into the pose (the inhalation can be used to explore depth, while the exhalation consolidates it) and to move prana (life force) efficiently through the body.
What is the connection between the breath, backbends, and the chakras?
The breath is the vital link between movement and posture, and helps us to free the body and create space. We use the breath to balance the various segments of the body, and it is through the body that we begin to access the chakras.
Can you give us an example of how you use the concept of the chakras as a teaching tool in one of your yoga classes?
I have often themed classes around the base chakra, Muladhara, which is related to the deep unconscious and also to one’s sense of stability and equilibrium. It is important with any personal work (especially when, like yoga, it is physical, mental, and spiritual) that the practitioner establish a strong foundation. From there—all growth is possible!