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.

Pratipaksha bhavanam

think-opposite

A friend often suggests “cultivate the opposite” as a way to approach growth or problem-solving. I believe she picked it up from her teacher; like a lot of this kind of wisdom, it actually comes from the Yoga Sutras. In this case II.33, Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam. In the face of negativity, cultivate the opposite, or in the ashtangayoga.info translation, uncertainty concerning implementation can be overcome via orientation with the reverse. But the way my friend uses it is more like behavioural resistance training. You like to talk? Try being silent more often. Like to lounge? Take more walks. Tend to be busy? Plan a simpler schedule. It works for all things, good and bad. Any opposite can be cultivated. It’s also kind of an ear-worm; since she introduced it, I have started thinking of it all the time. How can I embrace the opposite of what I am doing?

(In my case, I tend to be susceptible to catchphrases, or to cognitive gimmicks with potential to sweep all my cognitive mess under the rug. This blog post is just one more bit of evidence for that, and in the spirit of cultivating the opposite I will work on a balancing contribution another time. But for now, I’ll follow this thread).

I like this one because it is layered – just identifying an opposite takes a lot of research. Knee-jerk reactions like immediately pouncing on whatever you usually do and ceasing to do that thing are probably a kind of level one engagement. For example, I love peanut butter and always crave peanut butter and am an immoderate consumer of peanut butter so what is a good exercise for me? Eliminating peanut butter. Or, I tend to avoid eating anywhere other than my house when I am alone, so I could try to enjoy a solo meal at a restaurant, or at the dining hall at university, or someplace that is not my couch.

But these level one challenges change behaviours, not mindsets. (See this genius column on the similarities between training marine mammals and getting your husband to keep track of his keys for a hilarious meditation on this truth). There’s always several higher orders of change available. Instead of eliminating peanut butter, I could try training myself to use it moderately. Maybe that could be having it only at breakfast, or only on weekends, or only when baked into other things, or whatever; the real opposite would be to go from thinking about peanut butter a lot to thinking about peanut butter no more than I think about any other food item. I have no problem consuming porridge oats or lentil soup moderately, so why should peanut butter be an issue? But to do this I have to get into the inner workings a bit more.

I do not think that Patanjali was thinking of nut butters when he composed this sutra. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we get serious about yoga we often experiment with food. The daily process of choosing what to put into our bodies and what to refuse makes for a beautiful experimentation process with recognising, modifying, and eventually earning the ability to play with our tastes and tendencies as a means toward eventually freeing ourselves from them. Hamish Hendry put it bluntly at a workshop once: “Who’s the boss, chocolate or me?” Identifying the tendency, and then putting in the work to cultivate its opposite, starts loosening the grip of habit or expectation or samskara on us. It does this at first by bringing the samskara into view by giving it a name and letting us see just how deep a groove it has carved out through our letting it repeat.

Food, then, is probably not a very advanced samskara to work with. I’m imagining for myself a much greater challenge, attempting to adopt, deliberately, personality traits that I find repellent. I struggle with sanctimony, in that I find it objectionable when people praise their own moral stances as if they are the only conceivable choice for a thinking individual. If they do so without humour, all the worse, as far as I am concerned. In fact I attempt to cultivate the opposite, to approach my own stances and choices with levity and skepticism. Jokes at my own expense always make me laugh. But I cannot even be sanctimonious about my aversion to sanctimony: as I write this, I am haunted by the image of my junior-year high school English teacher, who once scolded me over a self-deprecating joke. “Stop!” she said. “Take yourself seriously.”

Now, more than a decade later, I would like to take her advice. And I will, I am sure, as soon as I can find a way to describe it in a metaphor involving peanut butter.