In backbends, we come face-to-face with the boundaries of our flexibility, patience, and equanimity. But learning to practice with our limitations—instead of struggling against them—can make backbending an exercise in self-acceptance.
Most of us come to yoga seeking sanctuary. We realize how important it is to briefly step away from the demands of life and relax into a spacious quality of mind that allows us to be with ourselves as we are, without judgment. Insulated from the racket of demands and from the need to rush, we become quiet enough to hear the stirrings of our hearts. And in the act of accepting whatever we find there, we replenish our energy and inspiration. Accepting the truth of our selves, our hearts, our muscles, our level of energy in any given moment is the height of compassion, and practiced this way, yoga becomes an exercise in equanimity.
How is it, then, that so many of us quickly abandon these ideals when we practice backbends? If we’re not paying close attention, the acceptance and lovingkindness we were working with in other poses suddenly dissipates. Any practice of the yamas and niyamas, those attitudes and behaviors that epitomize the spirit of yoga, falls away. We grasp for a deeper opening, greedy for the glory of a perfect pose. We refuse to surrender to our own body’s wisdom.
Using the breath to control the depth and apex of a backbend offers an interesting encounter with aparigraha, the attitude that’s described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as the ability to accept only what is appropriate. You make a conscious choice not to take all you could, not to move into the fullest backward bend your body can manage, because you see value in holding back; you value the health and integrity of your body more than the glory of a deeper backbend. You value the primary function of the pose—the opening—more than the final shape or form of the posture.
Can you acknowledge your resistance without judging it? Are you able to see weak back muscles as simply that and not as somehow connected to your value as a human being? That might seem easy, but what about when you look at something deeper, such as a protective barrier around the heart chakra? Can you observe that with understanding and equanimity?
But what if you do have the ability to look at yourself closely, compassionately, and with equanimity? Can you then meet your resistance head-on? Well, here’s the interesting thing: A mind trained in equanimity doesn’t push unwanted things away or grasp desired things closer. It honors and accommodates, knowing that such treatment is transformational. Ultimately, it is only in letting go of what you wish you could be, in seeking greater freedom to be who you actually are at any given moment, that the process of your becoming unfolds. Let each arch be an exercise in acceptance and equanimity, an active embrace of the sanctuary that yoga can offer, and a simple acknowledgement of a truth that might just change your whole life.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article: The Compassionate Backbend, by Kate Tremblay