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.
Jason owns and directs Portland Ashtanga Yoga.