Over the past three years my yoga practice has had many ebbs and flows.. but one of the most distinct has been my relationship with backbends.
When I first stepped on a yoga mat, my lower back was naturally very flexible (read: my core was weak) which made some "impressive" looking flexibility poses accessible to me quickly. This was exciting, it fed my ego to be considered good at yoga. So, I did a lot of backbends without building a foundation in strength or core awareness. My handstands were sloppy because I would immediately fall into a backbend, and this makes sense because I spent my time back bending instead of strengthening my core. Within a few months my lower back hurt so badly I had to give up backbends altogether for a few months. This was frustrating to say the least.
Fast forward two years and I'm telling a similar story, because I didn't learn my lesson the first go around.
In September I started taking contortion classes and deciding that I wanted to see how far I could push my flexibility. And I did just that, I pushed it. I practiced way too many deep backbends, and even though I had been working on upper back flexibility the sheer amount was too much on my lower back. I've spent the past three months with undeniable lower back pain and just as much fear to go along with it.
I've had to relearn backbends. How to backbend opening my chest and my shoulders, creating length and space so that I have room to go back without compression. This was so humbling, because suddenly I couldn't express any depth in my poses and many poses were painful. Soon I began to expect the pain, and I almost stopped doing any type of back bending for fear of permanent damage. When I did try to backbend again everything was closed and tight. It felt like I had lost my backbend, and I felt defeat. But I didn't give up. I changed my self talk, reminding myself how open and capable I am, how strong I've become. I went into NYC to take my favorite teachers class (Jared McCann) - knowing he has an uncanny way to open my heart. And like magic, I'm "fixed." For now, at least.
One of the most simple backbends that changed my practice was half moon pose (standing backbend). I went from going back so far that I could touch the ground to barely looking like I was back bending at all. But my entire body was shaking because it was so difficult to use my core and initiate the movement from my shoulders. This blew my mind, backbends had never felt like this before.
After three months of practicing like this I have a whole new awareness of my body. Yes, I still want to be able to put my butt to my head. But I no longer want to bend my back, I want my core to be so strong that it supports opening my heart to the fullest.
What I've learned:
Strong abdominals and core awareness lead to a safer practice. Having a weak core and trying to deepen your backbends will eventually lead to trouble.
Backbends are not about back bending, they are about front opening. You have to open your shoulders, chest, and hip flexors.
There are times to respect your body, and times to challenge the shapes it wants to make. If you focus too much on your strengths, your weaknesses will remind you.
Most importantly, we have to find the lesson in our experiences. There is far more to learn from the pain and the struggle than from the ease of success. And remember, it is ALL in your mind.