What a Backbend Can Reveal About Your Life
When I'm not working as a dashingly handsome acupuncturist, you'll often find me in the yoga room. I have a scheduled class once a week at Equinox Pasadena and often step-in a few times a month as a sub; It hardly qualifies as a second job. I do it to keep up my practice as a teacher. More importantly I have an intimate vantage point to watch consciousness flow through my students.
The principle of energetic flow in the philosophy of yoga overlaps with the ideas of traditional Chinese energetics. As we move our body in an asana, we dance in both our energy and that of our surroundings. When our consciousness surrenders into the universal, a radiance grows until we blossom into a fuller expression often resulting in a sense of timelessness, a feeling of joy, or a laugh. When my students connect to that "something" bigger and greater, it’s beautiful to watch.
For some, yoga is just an exercise to treat the physical form; lengthening tight muscles using leverage and body weight to get a desired stretch. With such a singular approach, what you often see is a willful mind with a non-compliant body. The consciousness gets stuck. The pose Ustrasana (Camel pose), a kneeling back bend, can illustrate this stagnation.
Ustrasana is a challenging posture because it invites the student to relax and open the front of the body. The advanced expression requires both physical grounding in the legs and the willingness to expand into a backbend. One is required to be daring and brave, surrendering apprehensions to move deeper. If the student moves into the posture while trying to keep absolutely in control, the neck grows tight, shoulders tense, the chest closes. If forced further it becomes a grotesque dance performed with the head jutting forward, feet slack, hips rocked way back, and curled shoulders accompanied with driver’s license worthy facial expression.
There are a few reasons for this occurrence (aside from injury). The first usually is unfamiliarity. This can be a fine and right place for new practitioners. A beginner can’t be held responsible for a restricted expression. The muscles are tight and the body is unaccustomed to this range of motion. He or she needs to put in the time and work.
The second reason for this muscular constriction, one that becomes apparent in practitioners of a few years, is energetic constraint. No matter how long one works, the posture doesn't change, expand, or grow. When there is fear, anger, or compromised expression in an individual there is an unconscious hunching of the shoulders, shortness-of-breath, a tight neck among other symptoms. This is consciousness and energy constrained. We’ve all seen this classic defensive posture. It’s uncomfortable and often painful. I’ve never once heard anyone complain of an unbearable openness of their chest, fluidity in the neck, and open, swivelling hips. We instinctually know what it means to have energy flowing freely.
Blocks in energy due to insults, occasional sadness, or even fear will pass because the natural alignment of the body will eventually reassert itself. The underlying structure is healthy. But, if the restriction is an expression of lifelong negative attitudes, early trauma, or chronic stress then the body is like a gnarled tree. These blocks are harder to resolve because the physical form itself has been shaped under stress. A negative energetic state is reasserted whenever the misaligned structure is stimulated. When people like this often come to my office suffering from internally generated pain and emotional constraint they have a hard time yielding to treatment, intervention, and advice. When I do acupuncture in these cases, the needles feel like they are going into bricks. The experience is usually painful. The situation is no different when these people try to practice difficult asana.
So far things sound terrible if you have an ugly Ustrasana. At this point you might think all is lost or that I’m a jerk. It’s not and I’m not.
Remember, we all move to practice, but we need to work to expand. We can first start by being completely open to receive something new to challenge that which is old. It can be a healing, an idea, or a difficult pose. This is not a bullshit new age sentiment; You have to want it and bring awareness to it.
The second step is the breath. The breath must be the focus. It is our connection to the limitless energy of the universe. It is the most powerful conscious motive force in our body. Most of those who are straining in a posture are often holding their breath. They likely hold their breath in life off the mat as well.
The third step, do not let your will exceed your available energetic space. Go slower and work at your edge. Use a prop. This is about unfolding and evolving your energy, not forcing it; Subtlety reworking the musculature and alignment using our breath. You don’t not know what a flower looks like until it blossoms so do not presume to know the final shape of your body. Be patient, work diligently and surrender to the process.
Ultimately this is a reminder that our yoga does not end at the mat. The major obstacle to our fullest expression is that we keep getting in our own way by forcing rather than yielding. Use your physiology as a road map to navigate the underlying energetic patterns that are both free as well as blocked. This is not blame but an invitation to cultivate awareness, let go of what you don’t need, and expand into your greatest self.
But hey, if all else fails, I do know an awesome and handsome acupuncturist.
Emill Kim, LAc,'s journey began when he decided to drop out of medical school and search for happiness. He is a second generation acupuncturist dedicated to the ideas of energetic growth and self-healing. When not working he spends most of his time practicing yoga, studying the nuances of energy medicine, and incessantly bugging holy men, light worker, brujas, shamans and other healers to share their secrets and wisdom with him. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on a book about his experiences.