Intense backbends can induce fear, anxiety and claustrophobia (among other things) in the yoga practitioner. Why do they do this? There are a probably a whole bunch of complex physiological and biological explanations for this; but from my very non-expert point of view, I believe that these reactions are closely linked to the fact that in backbending, we are asking the body to do something that it does not normally do in the course of daily life. In so doing, we are accessing certain muscles (some of which we may not even previously know existed) and moving particular joints in ways that they may not be accustomed to. Furthermore, in certain kinds of backbends such as dropbacks, we are also relying on these muscles and joints to do the work that we need them to do in order to support us in the passage through uncharted space, and bring us safely to the "other side" (i.e. landing on our hands, as opposed to on our heads). Since one cannot do all these things to one's body without also doing things to one's mind, anxiety, fear and claustrophobia would naturally be the mental correlates of this physical movement into unfamiliar territory.
So how can we safely and effectively navigate this fear-inducing domain of intense backbending? I just read something by Kino that may be useful in this regard. She writes:
"During the process of opening your spine, hips and shoulders in backbending, some common negative emotions are fear, anxiety, sadness, claustrophobia, suffocation, and anger. Some common positive sensations are joy, happiness, trust, release, surrender, peace, heightened energy flow and true power. One of the first lessons along the spiritual path is that when you’re confronted with life’s greatest challenges, you must learn to stay where you are and not run away. Yoga Sutra 2.1 defines Tapas as accepting pain as help for purification. You only purify yourself when you stand directly in the fire and choose a new path over escapism, denial and running away. It’s a powerful choice to stay amidst the intense fear that pain in any of your joints evokes.
This is of course not to say that you must power through and push past all your feelings of pain and anguish. Instead the process of accepting your experience of pain in postures like backbending is more about learning simply not to run away and to listen. Often what created the pain in the first place is a kind of fight with reality. The path of yoga teaches you to release your inner resistance. When confronted with intense pain that makes you want to get out quickly, the best remedy is simply to take one more breath. This will give you a pause between the stimulus of pain and the automatic reaction to run away. If you try to hammer harder or grit your teeth and bear it, you’re not actually accepting the pain. Instead when you resist and fight pain, you’re only pushing against it to try to get it to change. If you run away from an experience, you literally move away from it in fear. Life contains suffering and when you come face to face with it the only choice is to accept it, surrender to it and allow it to teach you one breathe at a time.
You cannot change your emotions, your thoughts or your physicality like a light switch. You cannot go from a stiff spine to a flexible one overnight. Yoga teaches you to accept reality as it is first and then in that state of acceptance see what change is possible. Working with healthy alignment, qualified teachers and time-honored methods, you have the power to change your reality breath by breath, day by day and year by year with your slow, steady perseverance over a lifetime. Perhaps the greatest gift of this practice is the chance every day to know just a little more peace."
I hope this might be helpful to some of you out there. You can read Kino's entire article here.