I hated brussel sprouts. Until I had them broiled with oil, garlic and salt. Yum. I used to strongly dislike (not very yogic to hate, right?) triangle pose. Until I learned how to engage my core appropriately, extend my arms using back muscles instead of neck muscles, and was shown a variation that didn’t involve looking at my top hand or raising my top arm. 

If I had to eat overly boiled brussel sprouts, I still would not enjoy them. Ditto for doing an extended triangle pose with a long stride, my hand on the floor, and my neck overly turned to gaze at my top hand. Fortunately, I’ve had friends who served me brussel sprouts cooked in tastier ways, and yoga instructors who’ve taught me variations and adaptations for triangle and other poses. 

My point here is, there is no one way to practice an asana (pose). Triangle pose is an asymmetrical standing posture, side bending against gravity, with an external rotation of one leg. The more I learn about the essence of a pose, the more options I have for doing it in a manner that will bring about a desired effect. Do I want to emphasize strength or range of motion? Am I doing it as part of a quieting practice or an energizing one? One thing is for sure – I’m not doing it to increase my dislikes or frustration level, and you probably don’t want to either. 

If there is not one correct way, it means “how to do a triangle pose” becomes a more challenging question. I’m currently taking an online training and one of the mentors likes to say “the answer to any question is – it depends”. Not a very satisfying response if you’re looking for absolutes. But the reality is that there are no rules that apply to every body. We come to the mat with our unique blend of genetics, experiences, interests, and injuries. Let’s celebrate that by allowing for variations in our yoga practices. You just might surprise yourself and learn to enjoy something you previously did not. Still haven’t learned to love liver and onions, but I’m open to your best recipe!

There are many benefits derived from back bending. They open the front body, strengthen the back body, extend the spine, and energize the spirit. Of course, like most poses, some people love ‘em and some don’t. 

We’re spending the month of July practicing  a wide range of backbends. Some backbends such as locust and cobra are great for development of back strength. Warrior I, pigeon and dancer lengthen the front body – especially the hip flexors. Upward bow has the added challenge of arms overhead and pushing up against gravity. In passive backbends such as supported bridge and reclining cobbler, gravity assists by opening the heart center and relaxing the mind.

Like all of our yoga, it’s important to approach back bending from an honest and personal perspective, and not from a place of striving or comparison. Done well, backbends can  strengthen the spine and improve posture and breathing. Done poorly, they can exacerbate back pain and sacroiliac joint instability. 

My intention for teaching backbends is for students to find their level of comfort in spinal extension and practice in a way that enhances their understanding and experience of back bending. Through personal practice and study it is my hope that students will learn best practices and find the freedom and strength that comes from this family of poses.

A few days ago, I asked a student to show the class revolved side angle pose. I wanted her to do it since I can’t ground my heel and achieve the “full pose”. Instead, I do it with a lifted heel. It works for me so I’ve never spent much time figuring out why I can’t put my heel down. After she demonstrated, she asked what I thought was limiting me. I’ve always assumed that my hips were too tight to allow for grounding the back heel. Then there’s ankle flexibility, genetics, and the incentive to spend time practicing the pose – so the answer was “no, not really”. If I’m truly honest, I’ve never found revolved side angle pose compelling enough to challenge my limits with it. I’ve always been satisfied with my variation.

The next morning on the mat, however, I got curious. Partly because I feel it’s important for me to “practice what I preach” and also, I truly wondered if I could find more steadiness and ease in revolved side angle if I practiced it earnestly and not be bound to my perceived end point (another thing that I preach).

What I discovered is that there are many interesting lessons on the road to revolved side angle. By fully experiencing the transitions that lead from straight front leg, to bent leg, to twisting the spine, there are opportunities to strengthen, maintain steadiness, and focus. The process rather than the final pose becomes the goal. I also realized that my curiosity was sparked by my student’s inquiry. Since I didn’t feel threatened by her wanting to know what was limiting me, I was able to reflect on her question without feeling inadequate or judging myself. 

Getting curious means having the courage to ask questions and look for answers. It may be a cliche, but it’s true that there is usually more than one person that wonders why something is done in a certain way, or didn’t understand the instruction, or whatever. So asking your question serves others as well. 

So be brave, get curious and the answers you find just might surprise you.

Last week in the Thursday night Inversion Series we practiced supported shoulderstand. Click here if you’d like to check out Jason Crandall’s sequence for warming up for shoulderstand. This inversion is one of the classics. It’s also one of the poses that’s caused me the most struggle. Over the years, I’ve used more blankets, less blankets, had my arms strapped, set up at the wall and tried just about every variation of shoulderstand I could find. All in the hopes of making it more comfortable. Some of those props did help. But what helped me the most was not giving up. And practice, practice, practice.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to explore inversions in all of my classes. Inversions are safe and accessible for most able bodied students, and alternatives and variations exist for students with physical limitations. There are some cautions and considerations that need to be understood before going upside down and it’s always best to learn inversions from a qualified teacher. The benefits of inversions include a change of perspective, overcoming fear, core stability, and reversing the body’s relationship to gravity. And they’re fun! So I encourage you to come to class and give them a try.