We start with several backbends at the neck in Pranayama, a total-spine backbend in Half-Moon, another in the first part of Awkward, another in Eagle. We again backbend at the neck when looking forward in Standing Head to Knee, followed by a contralateral backbend in Standing Bow and a backbend into a forward bend in Separate Leg Stretching. When we get to the floor series, we have the opportunity to do some deeper work on the spine in Cobra, Locust, Full Locust, Bow, Fixed Firm, and of course in the final backbend of the series: Camel Pose (Ustrasana). This kind of focus on backbending is unique to the Bikram Series, and in many ways is why the series is so therapeutic for anyone who practises regularly. There is a beautiful simplicity to it all, and it is very scientific: we put ourselves under the same conditions over and over again, practice the same sequence of postures, and literally watch ourselves transform through repetition over time.
“Everything is connected to your spine” – “You cannot live without your spine” – “All backward bending heals the spine”. These are the words of my teacher, Mary Jarvis, often referred to as the Queen of Backbending, and I cannot talk about backward bending without referencing her. When I met her in 2006, I was a few years into my practice and was struggling to work with my severely misaligned spine (lordosis, kyphosis, and scoliosis), and it was sometimes painful, often emotional, deeply frustrating, and a little bit scary! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fear I was experiencing when I took class had become a huge obstacle in my practice. It was not uncommon in a backbend for me to see stars, to feel faint, or to feel ‘locked up’ and unable to breathe. I know now that I was not alone – that these sensations are common in postures like Half-Moon Backbend and Camel – and that many people new to yoga, whether they are injured/misaligned or not, experience the exact same thing that I did back then.
Fear manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes we fear using our body, for instance if we are injured and in pain, inflexible or overweight. People often say to me things like: “I can’t do yoga/backbending because I have a bad back”; or “I’m not flexible enough for yoga”; and sometimes even “I need to get in shape before I can try yoga.” Sometimes we fear becoming the change; it can be easier to be the person that we are today regardless of how much pain we are living with. Sometimes we simply fear having the same experience over again – for instance, the pass-out feeling in Camel – and over a class or two we find that we’ve trained ourselves to expect the same outcome, and we may not even be aware of it. When we bring fear with us into our practice, it inevitably presents itself, and usually in a backbend!
When we learn to practice class in the ‘right’ way, we suspend the thinking mind, and the past and the future, so that we are in the present moment, and therefore not living in fear. The easiest way to bring ourselves into the moment is to become fully aware of our breathing and other sensations we are experiencing as we practice a posture. This allows us to stop thinking things like, “I should be able to do this better than I did yesterday, or better than the person next to me;” or “I’ve never been able to do this posture, I suck!;” or even “I usually do this posture better, so the problem must be the teacher/heat/etc.” Instead, our mind’s awareness allows us to notice, “How is my breathing now, and now, and now?” or “how is my spine today in Camel?” We make an incredible leap from doing a posture to becoming a posture. We learn to respond with patience and wisdom, rather than reacting impulsively. We simply go as far as we can until we can go further, and experience first-hand how willing the body is to change.