Tag Archives: back-body

urdhva dhanurasana

urdhva dhanurasana anatomy

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


just breathe

As yogis have known for centuries—and as medical science is beginning to discover—the breath has amazing recuperative powers. By controlling the breath (a practice called Pranayama), the yogis found, they could alter their state of mind. The three pranayama practices described here primarily create their effects by slowing and regularizing the breath. This engages what scientists call the parasympathetic nervous system, a complex biological mechanism that calms and soothes us.

How does slower breathing help? In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance—the pH level—of the blood. This condition, known as respiratory alkalosis, can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety.

In contrast, slowing the breath raises the carbon dioxide level in the blood, which nudges the pH level back to a less alkaline state. As the blood’s pH changes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us in a variety of ways, including telling the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine, a substance that lowers the heart rate.

As with any treatment, the breathing remedy must be administered intelligently and judiciously to be fully effective. Each condition responds best to its own special breath. To calm anxiety, for example, you can purposely lengthen your exhalations; to alleviate dullness and fatigue, you can lengthen your inhalations. And to lift yourself out of an emotional pit, it’s most effective to equalize the lengths of your inhalations and exhalations.

You’ll probably notice that watching the breath immediately initiates a chain of changes in it. First, it slows down. As it slows, its ordinarily rather ragged movements smooth out. And as the breath smoothes out, the space it occupies in the body increases.

When we breathe, most of us usually expand only a limited portion of the torso, generally in the front around the lower ribs and upper belly. Often, our breathing is restricted and shallow; ideally, it should be deep and full, so each breath cycle expands and contracts the height, width, and depth of the whole torso.

To experiment with consciously expanding your breath, sit in a chair with your spine erect—or, better yet, lie on your back on the floor. Put your fingertips lightly on your lower belly, just above the pubic bone, and try to direct a few inhalations into this space, expanding the belly each time. Once you can do this, move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbones, placing your pinkie tips on the sides of the sternum and splaying the rest of your fingers out to the sides.

Then, for a few inhalations, see if you can gently expand these spaces. Be careful to keep your throat as soft as possible as you do this, because there’s a counterproductive tendency to tense it as you inhale into the upper chest.

Once you can move the breath into the lower belly and upper chest, try to awaken your entire back torso, an area that is terra incognita for many people. As much as you can, breathe into your back body, feeling how it balloons and then deflates with each breath cycle. Once you can feel this, experiment with filling all of your newfound spaces with every breath.

Sometimes just watching and expanding your breath for several minutes can have a surprisingly positive influence on your energy level or mood. You can multiply this effect significantly by using pranayama—breathing exercises tailored to have an effect on specific moods and conditions. Based on knowledge cultivated and refined by the yogis over thousands of years, these exercises intentionally alter the speed, rhythm, and space of the breath.

Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Inhale, Exhale, Relax and Energize by Richard Rosen