Back Bends for Opening the Heart

Pigeon pose

Back Bends for opening the Heart: When back-bends don’t come easy.

Some causes of bad posture:

There  are many reasons why we develop bad posture and slouch: spending long hours on a computer or over a smart phone, driving, or lack of exercise. For me it was because I was always tall; as a child I was the tallest in the class, which didn’t bother me until puberty and I realized I was taller than all the boys. Then, like many teenage girls, when I developed breasts I became self-conscious and uncomfortable. All these elements combined and I began to slouch. The years went on my shoulders rounded, my chest sunk in and my head stooped forward.

Fast forward twenty years and now I am trying to master back bends in yoga and it is such a challenge.  For me, or anyone who has a habit of slouching forward, back bends always will be a negotiation between decades of bad posture and a comparatively brief moment on the yoga mat trying to unlock the body. Being physically tall or having a long back can make back bends more challenging. If you imagine the vertebrae as a string of beads, a person with a shorter back has shorter beads: they are more flexible, the string more bendy; a person with a longer back has the equivalent of longer beads on their string: the string is less bendy.

Closing the chest is an emotional response.

However,  slouching is not just a physical habit but also an emotional response. There is little wonder why back bending is sometimes referred to as ‘opening the heart’.

One Winter afternoon, shortly after my daughter was born,  I was pushing her pram and taking some much needed time-out at the local park. My heart was low, like most new mothers I was physically and mentally exhausted; medical complications had meant that my baby girl was not a good sleeper and that was causing me anxiety.

I remember I was hunched over and I suddenly stopped and assessed my posture. I was slouched over the pram, my chest almost sore with compression. I made an effort to stand up straight and then it hit me: I had real difficulty breathing while standing up straight. I experimented and found that when I was slouched over I breathed into the back of my ribs; the trapezius muscles were over-stretched and overworked. Many hours of holding and feeding a newborn had compounded the issue. When I stood up straight I didn’t have the maneuverability in the back of my chest to breath comfortably, I had to open the front of the chest in order to breathe and that took work. Even as a young, energetic yoga teacher I had not been aware that this was an issue for me.

Dancers pose

Dancers pose

Opening the Heart

Over the following months and years I began to deepen my back bend practice and it started very simply: Stand up straight. Breathe. Open the chest. Open the heart. There are many times that I have experienced a cathartic emotional release whilst practicing back bends. During a period of bereavement I knew that I had to get down on the yoga mat and work at opening the heart. For that moment I didn’t have to be strong, I didn’t have to perform or put on a brave face. I could let the tears come and it was good to let them out.

I have witnessed this with my pupils as well, sometimes I might warn them that back bends may be more difficult during times of emotional stress, especially if I know if a pupil is going through a challenging time in their life. There are also times when I know to hold back, either myself or for the pupils; that a deep back bend practice that day would be just too much. Instead I might focus on restorative postures and nurturing forward bends.

Gradually I have been able to invite my body to open but I must admit that I still find breathing whilst in back bends quite difficult, it is an on-going journey. It is this ability to breathe in a pose that makes it yoga: Sthira Sukham Asanam, a steady, comfortable posture.

My mastery of a particular back bend will come, not when I can touch my toes to the back of my head, but when I can be steady… when I can be comfortable … and when I can breathe.