Namaste everyone. Let’s practice a backbend yoga pose to help lift our spirits as the days get shorter. Back bending poses have a way of stimulating our nervous system, helping us feel more awake and alive. Unfortunately not all of us are happy back benders. I belong to that category. My shoulders and chest muscles are quite tight, making most of the backbends “not so pretty” and instead of lifting my spirits during my practice, make me frustrated that my body is not willing to bend over backwards beautifully. Recently a yoga teacher of mine made a very inspiring comment in her class. She told us students to stop performing our poses and rather be practicing them. Work on aspects that don’t come easy—it’s a practice, not the Olympics! Wow, that takes a whole lot of stress out of doing yoga on the mat for me. Keeping this in mind, let’s practice and explore Ustrasana- let’s align and refine this pose so we can enjoy all of its back bending benefits.
Instructions for Ustrasana:
In the first picture I have my toes tucked under, so I don’t have to reach my hands down so far and I’m keeping my chin close to the chest to avoid compression in the back of the neck.
In the second picture I’m working a bit more closer to the final pose but still have my knees and feet hip distant apart. In the advanced stage of the pose the knees and ankles are together.
- Kneel on your mat with your knees and tops of feet about hip distant apart and have your toes pointing straight back. If the floor is too hard on your shins, place a blanket underneath.
- Place your hands on your waist with the thumbs on the back at the top of your buttocks flesh. Squeeze the elbows towards each other at the back and lift your chest.
- Press your shins and the tops of your feet down into the mat or blanket as you lift yourself off of the calves. Bring your thighs vertical to the floor.
- Use your thumbs to lengthen the top buttocks flesh down, out of the lower back and pull your lower abdomen in and up.
In this picture I have a block between my tucked feet to help keep the feet hip distant apart and vertical to the floor—no sickling of the ankles
- Inhale to lengthen the sides of your trunk and expand your chest more. Roll your shoulders back and relax them down towards your waist.
- Now release your hands and place them onto your heels with the fingers pointing back.
(in order to reach the hands down, it might be necessary to lean back, but once your hands are in place, work on bringing the thighs back to vertical) Keep the chin slightly tucked towards the chest as you lengthen the back of the neck. Only then release the head back
- Hold the pose for about 30 seconds. Then, on an exhale, leading with your breast bone bring your trunk and head back to vertical and sit on your shins again.
Work in the pose for alignment:
- Keep pressing the shins, the tops of feet and hands down as you lift your chest to the ceiling
- press the center of your buttocks forward as the front of the thighs resist back—this helps me stabilize my lower body so I can more easily work the upper body
- The natural tendency for you might be that the front of the thighs roll away from each other. This can lead to a “compressed” feeling in your lower back. To avoid this, roll the front of the thighs towards each other—it feels like you are compacting your frontal hip points (as if you are tightening a belt).
- To back bend the entire spine not only in the lower back (this is where the back bend comes the easiest), concentrate on coiling your upper back more. For me this works best if I follow and visualize these instructions:
- Press the lower tips of your shoulder blades into the back
- Roll the back of the armpit to the front and roll the front of the armpit up and over the collar bones towards the head
Refine your pose with the use of props
- Use a chair at the wall
Using a chair in this manner allows me to monitor the “leaning back aspect” of the pose—the chair seat will help me keep the pelvis in place—no leaning back. Also, as you can see in both pictures, I am using the front chair legs to “walk my hands down” , encouraging a deeper back bend. As I hold onto the chair legs, I can roll the upper arms out more easily—this will broaden my upper chest area. Pushing the hands down will help me lift my chest up towards the ceiling!
- Using a chair with the backrest at the tips of your shoulder blades and pressing the center of the buttocks forward to keep your thighs in contact with the wall
In this variation I’m using the back rest of the chair to help me coil my upper back more. The backbend will not be ‘so big’ because the chair will keep me high and prevent the backbend in going into the lower back. It feels really goodJ
Notice how I have the chair tilted so that the back rest fits onto the bottom shoulder blades. Depending on your height you will need to adjust the tilt/or no-tilt accordingly. To have control of the chair you need to bring the arms through the chair and hold onto the chairlegs.
- How about a different way of entering the pose—notice if this way makes the pose feel different.
Instead of entering the pose “from top to bottom” try the “bottom to top” variation:
Sit on your shins with either toes tucked or feet extending back (have your feet however you normally practice the pose. You can also use blocks near the outer ankles) place your hands/fingertips onto your heels or blocks. Lift your chest strongly. Then inhale to press shins and feet down to lift off the shins. Keep pressing your buttocks forward to bring your thighs to vertical and come into the pose. What do you think? Is this way easier or more difficult?
Remember the Yoga Pose for the Month for July? This variation of Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog Pose feels wonderful after backbending. Give it a try:
Helpful and inspiring sources:
- A Gem for Women by Geeta Iyengar, published by Timeless Books, Palo Alto, CA, 1990
- Using the chair in certain ways and entering the pose in a different way were inspired by the Iyengar classes I attended in the past
Katja Huiras is a certified Yoga teacher who teaches Align+Refine Yoga classes at the Yoga Loft in Bethlehem. She received her 200 hr certification at the Yoga Loft and the 500 hr certification through the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, PA. In 2009 she was introduced to Iyengar Yoga and was intensely inspired by its method. Since then she regularly studies and practices with certified Iyengar Yoga teachers.