Backbending, with ears

Sharath, catching. According to him, it’s fun.

Backbending has seemed miraculous recently. Some pain came up for me, and it led to new spine awareness, sacrum awareness, and other unexpected points of awareness.

My jaw, for example. I have started to pay close attention to the jaw when I am dropping back. My ears drop when the jaw slackens, and so hanging there in a half-bend, solo or with support, brings that part of the body into the spotlight. My big toe, as well, suddenly seems like it’s anchoring everything, and I feel it’s relevant whether my right foot is planted in the same alignment as my left. There’s a lot happening.

Backbends aren’t fun for everybody, and even those who appreciate them deeply don’t enjoy them every day. More notably, they have an exalted status. You don’t hear a lot about crying in Dwi Pada, even though that’s a terribly challenging pose, or about the emotional challenges of learning to trust in Karandavasana, although a tough landing of your lotus’d lower half on your biceps can leave a mark. Maricyasana D is a gateway pose to the latter half of the Primary Series; there’s no reason that should be a more significant transition than the one to Pasasana after dropping back is established. People talk about those poses, it’s true, but there is something extra that happens in the backbending to make it represent what feels like everything hard about the practice.

Part of it, I think, is that the spine is mysterious. What makes it so someone has an open back or a stiff one? Hip tightness or shoulder tightness seem so obviously displayed in a person’s gait or posture, once you learn a bit about the cues, but you have to be a much more advanced reader of bodies to tell a stiff back from a distance. It’s also a bit tougher to identify a remedy for stiffness (not that I would say stiffness requires a remedy!). The hip can be stretched in loads of different ways, directions, styles; ditto the shoulder. Our ball-and-socket joints present lots of opportunities for creative stretching. Our spines, not so much; you pretty much have to just bend backward. And once you’ve established your bridge and ustrasana preparations, it’s urdvha danurasana, the same rainbow arc for everybody, and you’re just walking your fingers in that additional inch at a time.

On a more metaphorical level, which is where I am frankly most comfortable processing my physical experiences, bending backward represents an entirely different perspective on the world. The opposite motion, the bending forward, is more or less constant in our days. Hunching over a computer, lifting a suitcase or small child, and leaning in for an air kiss all involve pitching the body forward, as does soaping your feet in the shower, peeling potatoes over the sink, writing a cheque …. basically, we’re just spending a lot of time in some version of a forward-hunching posture. Bending backward is a game changer for our whole mental wiring. I think this explains my new interest in residing mentally in my earlobes while my spine makes a significant bend: I may not have had that capacity if not for the backbending.

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