Here’s Justin, demonstrating a potentially useful series of progressions for teaching people how to pull themselves off the floor from a backbend. Justin has some unique gifts and a specific practice background, both of which play a role in the appropriateness of these postures for him.
The first step is a sustained urdvha dhanurasana, with steady, slow “free breathing,” as Guruji used to say. Justin’s got a great backbend! No discrete angles anywhere, perhaps a bit in his knees. His wrists are under his elbows, elbows under his shoulders, shoulders over his wrists, and he maintains a steady gaze.
The second variation is to introduce dynamic movement to his urdvha dhanurasana via rocking. As a diagnostic, this is a great place to see if people are connected or disconnected through mula and uddiyana bandha. If their torso sways independently between legs and arms, the rocking might not be the right variation for them, and they may not be ready to work on standing up; or at least, they may be at greater risk for injury when learning to stand up. Here Justin’s hips move forward towards his feet, and consequently bring his arms with them.
The next step is to begin to chase down that transition phase just off the floor. Here Justin will drift forward and allow his hips to pull his hands onto his fingertips. I like a nice steady static 5 breaths here to encourage the person to really own this range of motion.
Justin also went above and beyond, and spent time developing a one-finger hold variation. From here it is a simple matter for him to pull forward onto his fingertips, and then half-way up, and then all the way up.
Justin is working on articulating and controlling every degree of the arc of movement. He spent some time pulling halfway up to the heaviest point of the movement, which is half-way, pausing there, and then lowering back to the floor.
He has been practicing 6x/week for several years, I believe, and for sure at least a year here at Portland Ashtanga Yoga, and he is very dedicated. He also has a phenomenal backbend he has developed over several years!
It’s useful to examine the extreme in order to reflect back to the middle. I would consider Justin’s backbending on the more extreme end of the Bell curve, which is a perspective that can be lost in a long-established Mysore room, which presents an exaggerated view of the “average” yoga student’s ability, expectations, and norms.
In this case Justin, although not hypermobile at any point in his back, is still pretty damn flexible! Also, I don't really see a ton of value in asking him to walk his hands closer to his feet.
So in the case of a student without his range of motion, the four stages outlined above would only differ by degree, intensity, and duration — but not in kind.
Meaning, someone can practice these progressions off the wall, or with feet elevated (more of this in a case study in a later post), or even with hands elevated.
imilarly to the overall Ashtanga sequences, you can introduce and practice the variations progressively and carefully, and after proficiency in early progressions is predictably repeatable.
This is the kind of nuance you can explore in a few upcoming events: a series of 6 classes on the Primary Series, held at Yoga Pearl. It will be a great way to learn the appropriate Primary Series — including backbend variations — for you.
Another great place to go deep with both Primary and Intermediate are the upcoming Saturations, held in Feb and April. We’ll also get into the myths and philosophy that enrich this practice.
Rebecca shows a few useful varieties of backbend. Generally in Ashtanga urdvha dhanurasana (upward bow) is practiced at the end of the particular series you practice. Just as you can cultivate a few varieties of downward dog, you can cultivate different varieties of backbend. Here are three archetypes I like to use at the studio. There are many more!
The first is like a sideways tear-drop. To rise up, she squeezes her rear and braces her belly (mula and uddiyana bandha). A squeezed rear drives hip extension, which Rebecca expresses with straight legs. Her braced belly prevents her low back from hyper-extending.
All this generally shunts the stretch into her thoracic spine and shoulders. This breed of bridge is useful to work on shoulder and upper back flexibility (more on Rebecca’s particular expression in a moment). In this case generally the head is neural, shoulders by ears.
In Rebecca’s case, this first backbend is more an expression of her shoulder, back, hip and quad flexibility (which is tremendous!) --- it’s not so much a useful developmental posture.
The second bridge is a more “classical” urdvha dhanurasana (upward bow). She uses her rear to move to hip extension, but she might relax it to allow more complete curve through the low back. Rebecca is here striving to curl her spine deeper and elevate her hips and ribs into the ceiling, which she might deepen by walking her hands closer to her feet. Her gaze falls between her hands as even her neck is curling. Generally this is the most common backbend I see in Ashtanga practices.
Finally, and just for fun, Rebecca tries to maximize her total spinal flexibility by actively curling her neck toward her low back. In this case, similar to utkatasana, she lifts her heels and pikes her hips to actively curls her low back toward her head. Ultimately she may bring her butt to her head.
This last one is pretty extreme, and is hugely reliant on genetic spinal disposition, especially lumbar hypermobility. It is not one I generally teach, or very rarely — may be appropriate for 3-4 people out of 500?
This leads to the other interesting observation, that I have helped people with this last extreme variation, and the people who can do it — they can do it within 2 weeks or less! It’s pretty incredible.
That said, it can be a useful approach for one end of the spectrum of people looking to explore their spinal range of motion.
I asked Rebecca to demonstrate for several reasons: her spinal flexibility far outstrips mine. She practices assiduously and diligently, and has for maybe 5 or 6 years. She is very gifted with flexibility in her back, shoulders, and hip flexors.
I have worked with Rebecca for several years now, mostly on shoulder, scapular, and spinal control and stability, rather than flexibility. So for her, the first chunk of postures in the Intermediate Series has been very helpful.
There are two lenses through which you can apply to the Ashtanga series — one is to focus on increasing usable range of motion. The other is to help teach body control and intentional articulation. The Ashtanga series are a great means of establishing a continuum, with strength on one side and flexibility on the other. A decent rule of thumb generally is stiff people move on the continuum to greater mobility and flexibility, while bendy people slide a bit more toward control and stability.
You can really dive into these details and more at a few upcoming events: a Primary Series 6-class series at Yoga Pearl, a great way to learn the appropriate Primary Series for you. You can enroll here: http://www.yogapearl.com/ashtanga-primary-series/
I’m also doing both a Primary and Intermediate Series Saturations (Feb and April), both great places to dive into this detail, as well as the myths and philosophy that surround this practice. More info here: http://www.portlandashtangayoga.com/events.html
Jason owns and directs Portland Ashtanga Yoga.