Oh, the favorable pose for many or not! What can be a very liberating movement can often feel like a struggle even for those who manage to invert on all fours. There are many variations to play with in order to coax the back into bending and it doesn't have to necessarily result in a full wheel. Any movement in the body if done with integrity, can leave you with the feeling of satisfaction and renewed energy.
Why do backbends?
Let's go over the effects of these freedom, loving poses and perhaps that may intrigue you to find a new appreciation for them the next time your on the mat.
First off, consider the energetics of the body. Sitting at the base of the spine is a bundle of nerves that house dormant energy (prana). One of our jobs when working with breath control (pranayama), is to awaken the prana and have it make its way up the spinal cord in an interwoven fashion. This process can be referred to as Kundalini. In the diagram below we see the the light and dark of Ida and Pingala nadis (energy channels) rising up the spinal cord (the Sushumna).
Ida Nadi represents the left sympathetic nervous system. aka:
the Moon channel that stores our emotions, desires and existence.
Pingala its opposite, is the right sympathetic nervous system. The Sun channel has the qualities of our physical and mental activities.
When prana is ascending in the body through breath and movement it activates the 7 energy wheels in the subtle body. Otherwise known as the 'Chakras'.
At this point you may be wondering why I've brought you this far down (or should we say up!), the esoteric study of energy. The connection of course is Back Bending also referred to as 'FULL WHEEL.'The posture of bridge or full wheel, stimulates all 7 chakras. Starting at the root chakra to the crown, each and every one has a different property. The base is where we ground, followed by traits of sensuality, power, love, communication, intuition and crowns at wisdom. The purpose is to strike a balance in each one so a free and effortless backbend can bring you to a state of joy or enlightenment.
A little self study moving into bridges and full wheels can reveal where you feel stuck energetically and physically.The more knowledge we acquire about ourselves in postures the more we are able to create new habits that benefit and balance our energies.
Here are some physical guidelines to build into your backbends
Lie your on your back, bend your knees and separate your feet hip distance apart. Stretch your arms along side your body with the palms facing down. See if you can brush your middle finger to each heel.
(Ideally when you lift your hips from the floor, you want your knees directly on top of your ankles to not strain the joints or ligaments.)
The lower half of your body, from the root down, is about grounding. So when you lift off be sure to emphasize the strength and support of your legs. Depending on the teacher's training, you may be instructed to engage the glute muscles when entering the pose.
Tip* If you generally feel tights in your hip flexors you can benefit from engagement to the glutes.
For flexible students with strong backs, passive glutes and strong legs could allow a deeper opening into the chest
(To read up more on to grip or not to grip check out this article http://www.yogajournal.com/article/practice-section/the-max-factor/)
Entering the pose using the breath
I recommend to newer students and anyone with lower back concerns, to lift off the ground on the Exhale. When we do this we are automatically engaging the transverse abdominus (the deepest muscle in the abdominal wall), that is connected to the engagement of Uddiyadha Bandha ( a subtle energetic lock that creates a movement of up and in of the abdomen). The benefit of entering on the exhale creates a safe approach and support for the spine
Experienced practitioners with strong backs can play with rising on the inhale as long as you remember to engage your supportive lock to protect the lower back.
Once your hips are buoyant now it is time for opening the chest. Often our focus is solely about getting the butt off the floor and tadah! Our intention is to find as much lift into the spine as we can so think of sending the upper chest towards the back of the room. Bring your attention to the back of your body and imagine each and every vertebrae is rising from the floor. Once this is established start to move the upper arm bones under your back and maybe you will interlace the fingers and continue to ground through the forearms and shoulders as much as you are the feet.
Watch for the neck here. It is very important not to overly move the head from side to side when you have entered the pose. You should still be able to slide a hand underneath the back of the neck so it is not flush to the floor.
Hold for up to 5 breaths and release on the exhale.
Repeat 3 times taking full recovery breaths in between.
For tights shoulders
Practice little bridge with the same mindful set up as above. When your hips are buoyant raise your arms straight up in the air as though your doing a handstand on the ceiling. Drop your shoulders into their joints to feel the entirety of the upper back on the floor.
From here simply bend your arms BUT keep your head on the ground. Practice drawing the elbows in to point straight towards the ceiling. Those with tight shoulders make sure that the hands are not right beside the ears. Depending on your wrist mobility you might even begin with the tips of the fingers on the floor as you guide everything towards the middle. The broader your shoulders the wider the distance from hand to hand.
Hold this position without lifting your head from the ground for 5 breaths
Release on the exhale.
Rise to the Top
Once you've become familiar to the arm positioning for tight shoulders and feel the body begin to loosen after practicing, the next step is to rise on to the top of the head.
Many things happen here in the attempt for lift off so be sure to take care of the body and MOVE SLOWLY.
Maintain the grounded position of the feet as they may have the tendency to pivot on the heel sending the toes to duck position or over arching to the sides of the feet.
Prepare the arms as above describes and on a SLOW EXHALE, come to the top of the head. As you made it this far, now you can refine the pose. Work towards pointing the elbows straight back as eventually we are creating chaturanga arms (see blog from Day 3 for details). 90 degree angles with the arms and be sure to draw the upper arms back into their shoulder sockets.
You will have a good idea where you are once inverted here so don't be in a hurry to press up unless you feel the alignment is in place.
Practice holding for up to 5 breaths
To come out, press into hands and feet then gently draw the chin towards your chest, letting the head be the last to touch the floor.
Full Wheel (Urdvha Dhanurasana)
All the same method applies to reach the full pose. Practicing the above explanations as warm up to full wheel can gradually loosen the body and most importantly ease your mind. Focus on the set up because truthfully that is where all the work is. As you lift into full wheel imagine your shoulder blades and your sacrum (that triangular shape on the lower back) simultaneously pressing straight up. Consider your navel is the highest point of the arch. Try to maintain YOUR true shape of the pose.
Recognize the area where you feel any tightness and don't forget to connect to the places in your body that FEEL GOOD. Hold for 5 smooth, even breaths. Release with the same graceful quality you entered.
After back bending, pause to see the effects on your entire body. Where does it resonate the most? How do you feel energetically? Is it a mental block that prevents you from doing another? If you responded yes to the last question then proceed again for one more =) Usually when we don't want to do a pose is when we need it the most.
My hopes after exploring this heart opener is you'll see what good fortune awakens within your own body. Full wheel stimulates the nervous system and gives us the prana we need to carry with us throughout the day, so the next time your feeling sleepy or closed up try lifting your heart ~you'll be glad you did.