In the second verse of his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes thoughts as vrtti (fluctuations) of citta (mind-stuff): waves in the mind. Just as a wave-tossed sea obscures your view of what’s on the bottom, your turbulent mind clouds your ability to see what’s at the bottom of yourself. Yoga, Patanjali says, is the dissolving of the waves so you can see to the bottom. And what underlies this sea of thoughts is your true Self—who you really are.
Since Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind, a primary focus of practice is the reduction of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain—the part that is most involved in conscious thought. In fact, most of us live much of the time not just in the front of our brains but in the front part of our bodies as well. You perceive with your sense organs (jnana-indriya), which—with the exception of your skin and, to a lesser extent, your ears—are positioned toward the front of the body and are oriented toward what takes place before you. Your karma-indriya—your organs of action, which include your hands, feet, mouth, genitals, and anus—have developed to function primarily in front of you, too. What is in front of you is familiar. Behind you is the mystery of the unknown. In a very real sense, yoga is a process of moving from the known to the unknown, from the front of the brain into the back of the brain, from the front of your body into the back of your body.
Although Urdhva Dhanurasana and the other backbending asanas strengthen and stretch your muscles and create mobility in the spine and the hip and shoulder joints, the real power of the poses is more subtle. They work on your nervous system, which is one of the reasons they are helpful in cases of depression.
The physical presence of your bones and muscles is evident. Your nervous system, however, is essentially unseen—like the back of your body. Since both your back and your nervous system cannot be seen, they must be perceived from within, sensed rather than thought about. And since most of the actions of the backbends occur in the unseeable back of your body, developing the power to perceive what is happening and what to do draws you from the front of your brain and your externally oriented organs of perception into the deep recesses of the back brain and the unknown corners of the intuitive mind. The flow of awareness in the practice of yoga is from the external toward the internal, from the periphery to the core, from the objective to the subjective. You must depart eventually from the familiarity and solidity of the known and embark on the great, perennial adventure into the unknown. As with the practice of Urdhva Dhanurasana, effort is required on this journey; mistakes are inevitable; obstacles will arise. As with the practice of Urdhva Dhanurasana, you must persist. If the words of the sages are true, when your spiritual travels bring you to that mysterious place where you embrace and transcend the duality of the known and unknown, you will find your Self waiting there.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Asana Column: Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend) By John Schumacher