Backbends: Opening to the Unknown

As I enter the yoga studio this morning and hear that our teacher has designed a class around backbends, I want to turn around and run.

I will do anything to avoid backbends.

At the thought of trying to do a backbend, my chest, shoulders, and neck tighten as if I’m expecting a blow at any moment. Before I can even roll my mat onto the floor in my usual spot, my palms start to sweat.

I don’t want to do backbends.

No, no, no!

Anything—please!—but backbends.

Yoga backbends
Photo by Freepik

I don’t know where my fear of backbends comes from. All I know is that a backbend challenges me physically and emotionally unlike any other type of pose.

Maybe I resist them because my upper back is so stiff from sitting at a computer all day, and doing backbends means dealing with the pain that comes from lack of flexibility. Or maybe it’s that I’m uncomfortable going backward into the unknown, in a direction that I can’t see. Or, maybe it’s that I don’t find it easy to trust that backbends are good for my health, especially if they arouse such fears and doubts.

Instead of doing the thing I most want to do (which is to physically flee), I stay on my mat and face my fear. Along with everyone else in the class, I begin to explore backbends. Starting with the slightest of backbends in mountain pose, I begin warming up my back to accept the next backbend, and the next.

With each backbend, I stand a bit taller and reach my arms high over my head and then, gently, oh so gently, reach my hands toward the wall behind me—hands, shoulders, head, and throat—and lean backwards. In that moment I begin to observe my pose differently. No longer is it a source of pain but, rather, a new road to explore, a new way to open my heart.

Of course, if I go too deeply into a backbend like camel, I’ll feel pain and discomfort. I’ve learned to monitor my discomfort and notice when my spine begins to tense or ache and to pull myself up with care if I bend too far. Each moment in the pose—especially in the more challenging backbends—focuses my attention and my awareness more intensely on the muscles and bones that support me.

Over time in a backbend I can feel my heart start to open. As if by magic, my chest expands, even as I search for the trust to go deeper and explore the unknown hidden behind me. Little by little, I become aware of the open space that is waiting for me to enter into it.

“Over time in a backbend I can feel my heart start to open. As if by magic, my chest expands, even as I search for the trust to go deeper and explore the unknown hidden behind me.”

With each backbend, I work toward the class’s pinnacle pose, upward facing bow (otherwise known as wheel pose). Finally, when it comes time to embrace what I find most challenging, I recline on my back, place my hands by my shoulders with elbows pointing toward the ceiling, and spread my feet hip-width apart to prepare to push myself off the floor into a backbend.

I take a deep breath and attempt to lift my hips up. Even though I’m unable to lift my shoulders and hips more than a few inches off the mat, I keep trying to expand, to lift my hips, open my heart, and relax into the pose. I notice my hips inch upward, but I still can’t move my shoulders far off the mat. I don’t yet have the strength in my arms or legs. Or maybe it’s my fear of backbends that still stands in my way.

One day, though, I’ll surprise myself. I’ll rise up into a graceful upside-down bow, and in that moment, I’ll watch all my fears melt away.

Mindfulness Practice Suggestion

How do you feel about backbends? If you’re afraid of them—any backbend—can you examine what it is about the pose that you find so frightening? Can you explore the pose—identify the steps that you take into the pose and what you need to do to stay in the pose—and ask why you’re afraid? Is it pain that frightens you? Or fear of failing to do the pose properly? Perhaps shame that you’re not (yet) able do the pose perfectly? Explore these questions (and any others that might arise) as you practice, and reflect on the pose. See if you can make a list of what it is about backbends that you find so challenging.

Here’s my list for backbends:

  1. Fear of pain in my lower back.
  2. Fear of the unknown (behind me).
  3. Fear of not knowing whether or not I can do the pose.
  4. Fear of opening up.
  5. Fear of being vulnerable.

Reviewing this list, I notice how vulnerability—and fear of being vulnerable— appear as strong themes in my practice. Even though I attend a class where I feel safe, surrounded by people and a teacher whom I trust, I still hesitate to reveal my true feelings. I am still afraid of opening myself up fully.

What about your list? What does it reveal about you?

Bruce Black

Bruce Black is the author of Writing Yoga (Rodmell Press/Shambhala). His work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Elephant Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Tiferet Journal, The Jewish Literary Journal, OM Yoga, Reform Judaism, Mindbodygreen, Yogi Times, Yoga Mint, Hugger Mugger, and elsewhere. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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