Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backbends, moving from the center, asana practice as artistic interpretation

In the last couple of weeks, I have been devoting more attention to backbends in my daily practice. In particular, I have been working on opening the front body more in dropbacks. For the longest time, whenever I get to the dropbacks, my mind always consciously or unconsciously says to itself, "Ah, dropbacks! Last set of intense poses before the sweet release of the finishing sequence. Quickly do the dropbacks and standups, and get them over with!" As a result of this way of thinking, I always had the tendency to kind of just rush through dropping back and standing up, with the result that they are usually kind of sloppy. 

In the last couple of weeks, however, instead of simply rushing through the dropbacks and trying to get them over with, I have been spending more quality time with them, by doing more with less: Less dropping all the way to the ground, and more hanging back and opening. Instead of just ritualistically dropping all the way to the ground and coming back up three times, I have been doing three hangbacks and then only dropping back all the way to the ground on the fourth and final time, walking my hands to touch (and hopefully, one hand, grab) my heels. This is what Kino does at the mysore sessions at her workshops. It's a good way of building strength and flexibility in the front body, especially in the psoas and in the quads, especially if you keep your knees extended (or as extended as possible) the whole time. Keeping the knees extended (or as extended as you can make them) has the effect of really getting the backbend into the quads and the psoas.

Seen from the outside, hanging back instead of dropping back may look less intense, and it may look like one is doing less work. But looks are deceiving: By engaging the psoas and the quads and opening the front body more, one is actually moving more intently from the center than if one were to simply drop back for the sake of dropping back. This brings to mind something David Garrigues wrote a couple of months ago:

"Generally speaking in our daily practice we can get sucked in by the lure of our fantasy about the forms of the asanas in sequences... In our fantasy of what we will look like and how good it will feel we overextend ourselves in our efforts to achieve what we consider to be the end goal or final pose. Our excursions take us too far away from the center where the skeletal support is, where our breath really does lead the way– where we make optimal use of our muscles and organs and where our brains are situated properly to minimize reality obscuring ego striving.

For example, to go for a drop back and be unheeding of the position of the skeleton in order to get your hands to the floor is a long term mistake. In the short term there might be a thrill, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of maximizing progress. a feeling like you are working at the edge so you will improve and be an intense student... How strict are you going to be? How close to center are you going to stay? How many props (please note: only if necessary and desired and under certain, specific conditions) are you willing to use to remain close to center, close to principles?—We want to explore the foundational principles of the positions and see how those principles will always lead back to that central asana that has so many important names—but actually is unnameable—"

David's words here are priceless: Definitely something to constantly ponder and come back to.


On a slightly different note, it has recently occurred to me that asana practice has many similarities to artistic interpretation. Just as the same piece of music played by two different musicians can give rise to two different works of art, no two individuals will ever realize the same asana in the exact same way. For instance, Urdhva Dhanurasana expressed in my body will never be the same as Urdhva Dhanurasana expressed in your body.

Actually, this difference in interpretation also shows up in the way different yogis assimilate the same yogic insight. Take for instance, David's words above about moving from the center. Two different yogis may both perfectly understand these words. Yet they will both apply these words differently to their own bodies, and adapt them to fit the needs of their minds and bodies in order to make these words work for their bodies. The first yogi may have longer psoas and quad muscles, and may be able to go deeper into the posture, or even drop back all the way to the ground right away and still move from the center. The second yogi, by contrast, may have tighter psoas and quad muscles, and may need to not drop back all the way in order to work more from the center. In this way, we can say that the two bodies "interpret" the words differently. Indeed, this interpretation difference is necessary in order for the asana practice to be fruitful and productive for each individual.     

Just my two cents', as always. :-)


  1. I agree that it's much harder to hang back and let the hands slowly come to the floor. I haven't quite got the knack of it yet, easier to come crashing down. Also, I wonder if David G would say that the feet should be parallel and hip width for dropbacks. I can't manage that either, the feet splay out to the side as I dropback and I quickly bring them back to parallel as I come up. A failure to engage the adductor muscles while dropping back?? It just doesn't seem possible otherwise.

  2. Hello DeborahS, my feet also splay when I drop back. When I was at Kino's workshop, though, Kino didn't seem too worried about it; she thinks that as one gains more flexibility in a certain group of muscles (can't remember what they are), the feet will gradually become parallel. But in my case, I have noticed that the splaying occurs in that last moment just before I let go and drop back. Which is why I think that if I practice hanging back more, I should eventually develop the necessary strength and flexibility to drop back without splaying.

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