asana emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites

stretching the east : on backbends


So, backbends. I’m not good at them. But I need them. I like them. They feel good. They used to feel like a jolt of coffee, because I take so little breath into my upper chest in my regular breathing pattern. To stretch the chest is crazy energizing, especially if you tend to hunch forward. Now that I do them daily, all sorts of things come up.

The more you do yoga, the more subtly you feel your body. The more you feel what it has to say. What you have to say. That is the trickiest thing in writing and talking about yoga. It’s a non-verbal endeavor, truly. Putting words to it can be difficult, and for a thinker, can run into territories of faith. It’s really something you can’t understand unless you have done it, and done it in a way that is accessible for you (i.e. the teacher and style resonate). It’s like meditation. I really can’t take anyone’s theories or analyses of yoga or meditation (eg Zizek) seriously if they haven’t sat on their ass for at least a weekend (that is very very generous. I do not mean you know anything after a weekend, but you now have an idea bigger than theory). Until then, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just head talk. Disembodied ideas. Blah, blah, blah.

Right. Backbends. I’ll quote from two books I encountered last time. The first, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. I only read the small backbends sections in these books, so I have no recommendation for or against them.

Backbends are especially tremendous poses…because they encounter a sense of emotional openness and confidence. They gently open the chest, abdominal organs, pelvic region, and the whole front side of the body—the tender vulnerable side. The chest is where the heart chakra is located. Many of us are closed down and defended in that area, either from a lack of love or from past hurts. The pelvic region is where the sex chakra is located and many of us have contracted and pulled back in that area. We attempt to protect ourselves emotionally by closing down, pulling back, contracting our bodies, and thereby forming a protective shield or barrier. Closing down is not healthy, though. It’s part of what makes you feel more separate psychologically, and it constricts and restricts vital energy flow, which will inevitably cause you to feel more depressed than you would otherwise, more fearful, less vital, and less alive. Not to mention the fact that most of us sit in a somewhat cramped or collapsed position much of the day, anyway—either at a desk, while driving or eating, or in front of the TV–which not only impairs the functioning of the lungs and abdominal organs but causes the spinal vertebrae to push backward out of healthy alignment.

Backbends open these closed areas, thereby releasing blocked energy while simultaneously building the strength needed to stay open. Strong back muscles, developed with backbends, make it easy to sit and stand erect all day long, so you are alert and comfortable more of the time. Backbends give you energy because they release tension and blocked energy in your chest and pelvic regions as well as through the ankles, knees, quadriceps, abdominal organs, upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms. They are rejuvenating. They encourage youthfulness by keeping the spine supple.

(Schiffmann, pp. 199-200)

I appreciate his mention of the pelvis here, which is absent from most discussions of backbending, but hugely involved. The more intense backbends, in fact, slam my major areas of stress. The “sex chakra” analysis is unfortunately simplistic. The root chakra is located in the pelvis as well, and there are all sorts of reasons one might hold in the psoas and pelvic region. When I talked to my Rolfer about my thoracic spine and kyphosis, she went straight to work on my right psoas, where I tend to hold, to release by back. “Whoa. Weird,” I thought.

We need to be careful about reducing matters to the “heart” and “sex” chakras. Though, sure, trouble in the second might well lead to imbalance in the fourth, and vice verse. Though linking sex and the heart almost seems far fetched in the postmodern era. [Tears.]

The other book with some interesting insight was Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow:

As part of their sunrise practice the ancient yogis called their backward bending “stretching the east.” [They did?] Backward bends stretch and strengthen the front portion of the torso, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the legs. They stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, which lay deep under the anterior musculature of the abdomen and pelvis and bind the legs to the spine; the diaphragm and the intercostals, which are the primary musculature of respiration; the anterior muscles, which bind the shoulder girdle to the spine; and the anterior muscles of the legs. In addition, they strengthen the superficial and deep muscles of the back, which contract as we bend backward; strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder girdle; stretch the abdominal organs, relieving the visceral compression; gently compress the kidney/adrenal area, stimulating its function; and stretch the anterior muscles of the neck and throat, including the area of the thyroid and thymus glands.

(Kraftsow, pp. 49-50)

Again, mention of the psoas/pelvis and a nice anatomical view of backbending efforts. It’s weakened by the first line, though, as there’s zero evidence that ancient yogis had a sunrise practice or that they backbended. In fact, only a few backbends (e.g. dhanurasana) are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, which, circa 15 C.E., is hardly ancient. Kraftsow studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps that’s where he got his mythology. Regardless, it’s incorrect. Yes, the front body is east and back body west. But it’s quite a stretch to bring the ancient yogis daily regimens into the argument, stated as fact. We really have no idea.

I’m rambling a bit here, largely as a process of investigating something. My chest and spine feel locked into place and I’d like them not to be. Talk about the heart chakra, closing down, vulnerability is interesting but not that helpful. I’ve spent time in my body and mind. I know that. Telling someone to open isn’t an open sesame. And even if you are massaged open, if the same mental and behavioral patterns haven’t shifted, the body will go straight back to where it was.

We can all tell sad stories of difficulties and loss. These stories can be liberating or (more usually) just another trap and excuse. The liberation, I gather, comes from experiencing the true emotion behind the tales, rather than a disassociated dramatown plea for attention that wasn’t received when we needed it. But true emotions can be madly elusive, having been avoided and ignored for so many years.

Thus far, the breath has been the most helpful. Luckily, the chest is somewhere I can actually breath into directly (unlike, say, my hip). Taking time to really breath, gently, into the top of my lungs, when I’m practicing, and sitting, and writing.

favorites yoga habits

on the time i saved someone’s life after a backbending class with genny

or at least his leg


Yoga asanas are generally broken down into categories: standing poses, backbends, forward bends, twists, and so on. Backbends are poses in which the spine is extended. Spinal extension is the antithesis of the laptop hunch we’ve managed to perfect, which is but one reason they can be so hard.

Somewhat lost in all the online info on backbends (opening! exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!), I walked to the bookstore. I regularly consult Light on Yoga and Yoga: A Gem for Women by the Iyengars, but I wouldn’t mind having a few more solid books on asana. Not just the anatomy and alignment, but the energy around them. It can be hard to judge yoga books online.

Out of the 250+ books on yoga (many were multiple copies), I found only 7 worth browsing. My favorite books on yoga were not even there. Only 3 had something to say about backbends. Though the editing was a little tighter, they didn’t really offer anything I hadn’t read online. Exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!

This is totally true, no doubt. Posture and pelvis are two that I don’t see mentioned often, and think of immediately, especially in my own backbending practice.

Painting on limestone, Egypt, c. 1292 – 1186 BCE
Museo Egizio of Turin

It’s not simply lazy posture that makes us curl over ourselves. Kyphosis can be a result of protecting the heart. A turtling attempt at body armor. We all hold and protect ourselves in different ways, and this is one of mine. And it’s pretty deeply held. Unlike my cranky hamstrings, which I feel groaning in stretch, my upper back is so locked into place that I don’t feel it stretch or move.

I now practice backbends daily, but years back it was more sporadic. When I studied with Genny, one week a month was (and still is, I imagine), dedicated to backbending. These were my favorites. After these classes I felt like a sprite. Awake. Happy.

Just wait, it gets happier still. I’m speaking about energetic experiences in the body, and the felt experience that comes with them. While some of this sort of thing has been studied scientifically, it’s generally frowned on by academic communities. As Christopher Lasch said back in the 70s, “Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of minutiae” (not that he would have approved of this endeavor. But never mind). There are many reasons for this. One being that there isn’t much economic gain in people feeling good, unless a drug is involved. In pomo America, our God Science is as economically motivated as any other. Another reason: the Descartian insistence on rationalism and the mind-body split. What is missed here is that other, non-verbal experiences and ways of knowing do not preclude rationality. They enhance it.

So, after my backbending class at Genny’s, I waited for the train at the West 4th Street station in the Village. It was a bit past rush hour, busy but not crowded. While I waited for an express, a local train came in. Then shrieks of terror. I turned to see a man of about 55 had fallen while getting onto the train. There was a wide gap between the platform and train, and one leg was stuck in it. His other leg was up on the platform, and upper body as well. He made a horrible barking type sound, obviously in total shock.

I looked around. Everyone just stood staring. Without thinking, I went over to the man and put my body against the door so it couldn’t close and the train wouldn’t move. I put my arms around the man but he was too heavy for me to pull up, and his awkward split rendered him totally immobile. His pants were stuck in the wheels. It was horrifying. I held his torso against me and said over and over, breathe, just breathe, it will be okay. The train won’t move. We’ll get you out.


That set people into motion. Someone in the car asked me if he should pull the emergency break (“Yes!”) and then two men came over and lifted the man out. He disappeared into the train, refusing further help. I realized then that everyone on the platform had crowded around, staring. A conductor finally came by, cursing the fool who pulled the emergency brake, unaware of the entire episode.

I walked back to the other side of the platform, shaken, in disbelief. That man’s leg was caught up in the wheels of the train. It could have been grisly. I knew, was 100% sure, that the only reason I had the presence to help him was my state after Genny’s backbending class. Maybe I’d have helped another time, but maybe not. I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but that my thoughts would have interfered.

Whenever I read about people who jump onto the tracks to save a stranger’s life, they always say, “I didn’t think about it. I just did it.” They don’t think of themselves as heroes, and after sometimes ask why themselves why they took such a risk to save a stranger. They do it because we all have a human instinct to help each other. Our culture of commodification and greed does everything in its power to teach us otherwise, but amazingly enough, it’s still there.