The Wisdom of Bending Backward to Move Forward

If you know me, you know that I dread backbends.

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Wheel Pose) is an important part of the first Ashtanga series, but each time I practice I find myself making excuses–anything to get out of it, or even push it off for just one more pose. When I practice with Jenny, I always hope she’ll forget about the backbends. She never does.

The truth is, my back is fairly flexible. It’s not like backbends kill me or I can’t physically manage them. Still, though, there’s just something scary about arching your torso in the exact opposite direction that you normally do, letting your head hang free, and allowing your heart and throat to remain vulnerable. For me, this is why backbends like Locust Pose aren’t a huge deal, but other poses like Wheel or Camel can really get my heart to racing. They’re not painful; they’re uncomfortable. After all, I spend a lot of my life working to protect my heart, both physically and emotionally.

I’ve been working on backbends for a few years now, but Jenny happened to say something to me in class last month that put things in a whole new light. Her comment was not directed at the actual backbend itself, but rather at the process of coming out of it. While standing in front of me as I stood up from Urdhva Dhanurasana, Jenny put her hands under the small of my back and lifted gently. She waited for me to rise all the way up so that we were standing face to face, and then she pointed at my chest.

Lead with the heart. The head comes last,” she said. And then, with a small smile, added, “…and not just here.”

This time, when she asked me to drop back and stand up about three more times I didn’t even protest. I put her suggestion right into practice there on the mat (surprise, surprise: it worked), and as I went about the rest of my day, I let her words roll around in my head. Is that why backbends are so scary? Is it because they place our hearts in such a vulnerable position, and we know that to come out of it we’ll have to move reason to the back burner and operate from a place we may not be so used to? And, if so, what would it look like to face that discomfort head-on in everyday life?

Right now, I feel like I’m in the backbend phase of life.

When you make the conscious decision to try dropping back for the first time, it is scary. You know where you’re aiming, but you can’t see where you’re going, and all you can do is trust in your own strength. Dropping back requires you to be flexible, focused, and willing to end up falling on your head. I guess you could say that my decision to move to Israel and start a whole new chapter here was my off-the-mat equivalent to a drop-back.

Now, I’m in Urdhva Dhanurasana. I feel like I’ve been here for a year. Every part of me is being stretched. I’m finding strength I didn’t know I had, realizing I may have overestimated my degree of flexibility, and wishing desperately that someone would come put their hands under my back and lift me out of it. There’s no teacher in sight, though, which means that I am going to have to find the courage to muster up that last ounce of strength and pull myself to my feet. How can I do that?

Lead with the heart.

If we get scared and try to snap upwards headfirst, we’ll almost surely fall backward. This would certainly not be the worst thing in the world, but it is a blip in the plan. However, if we trust the process, get a tiny bit of momentum, and let the heart be the leader, we’ll often find ourselves standing squarely on both feet before we realize what happened. That is an incredible feeling.

So, I’m going to try leading with my heart. Even if my head doesn’t have all of the answers and even if the steps I feel drawn to don’t necessarily make sense, I believe those feelings are there for a reason. I don’t know where I’m going to live yet, but I know that my heart wants to move on from this city, so I gave my landlord my notice. I’m not sure which job opportunity will crop up, but I know that leaving my current job was the right thing to do for my wellbeing. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a kind and stable partner, but I know that getting the courage to move on from a destructive relationship was an act of love for myself. Leading the heart is scary, but it’s worth it.


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