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How Yoga Helps Us Exceed Our Limitations

Heather Morton
May 25, 2012
Heather Morton
Written by
May 25, 2012

Recently I received an honest query about backbending from a male practitioner and teacher of yoga. I love receiving this kind of note because it is an opportunity for more men to understand how yoga, and including backbends, might be good for them. It also touches on some good points.

Reader Question:

I have come across your work am very interested in backbending. I am a long time male yoga practitioner and more recently teacher. I have always been challenged by backbending and never seem to advance and fear causing myself long term injury.

I have a very slight kyphosis which is the result of contracting Schuermanns disease in my teens. However that was only diagnosed 1 year ago. I have always had minor chronic pain in my low back but there is nothing other than bad posture.

I have seen many advanced yoga practitioners who are accomplished with backbending but end up finding their spine has always been able to move in this way. Almost contortionistic you might say. When your spine is initially out of alignment it is difficult to know where you should be in space as you perform a backbend. You look like you never had any kind of spinal challenge.

My presentation may look flawless but it has been years of a dedicated practice in working through all my problems. Yes, problems and wondering when things were going to get better. It may look like I possess a gift, but I have been faced with many challenges. My spine is on a slight angle; 17 degrees located in the middle of the upper back. Because of this a lower rib pops out often called a hip rib. As a kid it was always sore because it was in the way of normal activities. I had it checked by doctors who confirmed this is the way it developed in the womb. So here I am on an angle.

Because of the above I had to learn to be more mindful of alignment and work harder at correcting it. I also had a car accident in which I fractured my scapula and broke my wrist. Due to this, my left shoulder was weaker and many problems arose as I learned inversions, arm balances, and inverted backbends.

What most people fail to remember is that when you're facing a limitation it's not the time to give up. It is the time to make time and make the practice adjust to you. These are the little nuggets of wisdom that uncover hidden and structural problems that lie at the root of pain. Furthermore, when the spine is misaligned it is best to focus on building the supporting structure. In other words, the problem area is not addressed first but last. As an example, low back pain is not always removed by targeting the low back but in developing better upper body posture and stronger abdominal muscles.

Many yoga masters say the same thing about working with limitations. They too suffered through depression, disease, poverty and accidents. After hearing this maybe our problems seem a bit more manageable! Yoga is about strengthening the mind. It can also at the same time improve and correct anatomical issues. Maybe you will never learn to touch your feet to your head, but is that the point? Truly, the point is to learn to work with yourself and on all levels.... like, love, hate or dislike them.

I can’t seem to see from the information whether the practice of backbending can build a foundation for people who truly are challenged in these postures. Could you please provide some feedback for me on this?

The practices as I learned it under my teacher offers a template for all to follow. This is the general structure:

The sun salutations as a basic warm-up with the cobra and downward dog pose held longer. These are counter poses that support each other by stretching the spine outward and downward. Breathing is key and using the lower abdomen in order to support the low back when more intense back bends are introduced.

The fundamental backbends include postures such as the low back wheel pose. This begins from standing and is generally practiced with the feet together. A key idea is to imagine the tail-bone tucking under and the pelvis (front) stretching. As well, the chest is widened with slow breaths.

Counter postures are a grounding aspect of the practice. These are customized to suit the student, but forward bend, spinal twists and the side angle bend called konasana are the staple.

Finally the rest and relaxation stage is critical to the practice. Properly relaxation deepens the physical practice. The muscles can only be forced so far then rest is needed. The relaxation process is also a withdrawal from the sense organs called pratyahara.

We can never start off perfectly or even end that way. Instead yoga is the perfect way to help teach us to bring our limitations to the next level.

Heather Morton author page.
Heather Morton
Heather Morton is part of a select group of people certified in AtmaVikasa Yoga. She is the first Canadian woman to be certified both in the 1st and 2nd series of the AtmaVikasa system. Having made 14 extended trips to India, she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only yoga school for 6-week programs. Heather created a loyal client base and taught the programs independently for 15 successful years. She holds a Theatre Performance degree as well as a teaching degree in Dramatic Arts and a Masters of Education. Her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic thesis on Yoga as a curriculum subject within the Indian educational system. She has produced Cds, Dvds and podcasts for practice. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional resource to the foundation of yoga backbending. Heather has been featured in affluent mediums like the Toronto Life Magazine and The Globe and Mail as well as several on-line resources. Catch her posts, videos and updates at Born and raised in Toronto she currently resides in Europe with her husband near the Swiss/German border.