If you’re like the average person, any sort of back bends in yoga class just seem to be a “back break.” Urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) just seems impossible. You dread ustrasana (camel pose), for fear of “falling back.” And lifting your chest off the floor in salabhasana (locust pose) feels more like rupturing your veins in your head than "opening your heart."
But have you heard of the saying, “You are only as young as your spine”?
There is truth in that, because having a good posture not only makes you look taller, you also appear more confident, younger, friendlier, and more welcoming. In addition, it is believed that the spine houses our 7 energy channels known as chakras. In some schools of yoga, like Kundalini yoga, the goal is to activate the foundation of the spine to awaken the 7 chakras through breath work and yoga asanas. Imagine trying to do that with hunched shoulders and slumped back. I’m pretty sure that energy would be blocked along the way as it tries to move its way up to the crown of the head.
In this day and age, we sit huddled in front of some sort of screen most of our waking hours. Our lower back is slumped, putting pressure in our lumbar spine (common underlying cause of bulging and herniated discs); our core is disengaged (and I can write a whole other blog post on the core), impairing the circulation in our nutrient-rich and blood-rich digestive system; our shoulders are hunched forward, collapsing our chest which shallows our breathing; our neck is craned forward, putting a much higher strain to the neck to hold our head at an unnatural angle.
But wait! There’s more! Our slumped posture doesn’t just affect our upper body, the lower body is affected too! The rounded and collapsed lower back tucks our pelvis under, which shortens both our hamstrings and hip flexors.
Now, going into more of the “woo-woo” field, the hunched shoulders and collapsed body indicate that we are caging and protecting ourselves. We are keeping ourselves to, well, ourselves. We tend to block and ignore our emotions rather than face them square in the eyes. We try to cover them, bury them, and forget them. But rarely do people realize that, as Caroline Myss puts it, "our biography becomes our biology.” Before you think this is more “woo-woo” stuff, think of a time when you were nervous—perhaps before a big presentation or your first date with someone new. How did you feel? Did you feel tense, short of breath, and covered in sweat? Now think of a time when you hugged someone. Did you feel warm, relaxed, and happy? All these emotional energy shapes our physical body’s language. Thoughts and emotions are forms of vibrations within our body that can be embedded within our tissues and cells. Most of time, these energy just sits there, dormant and forgotten. Yoga helps awaken these energy through breathing exercises and asanas that were designed to access these energies.
So, going back to the idea that we are enclosing ourselves from others when we round our shoulders forward. Imagine you were to come across a person with arms crossed in front of him, shoulders rounding forward, and eyes looking down. What would your first impressions of that person be? Shy, low self-esteem, secluded, and unapproachable might be some words that flashed across your mind. Now, say you come across another person with head held high, shoulders back, and chest lifted. That person might appear more confident, friendlier, and more approachable to you. Which person do you want to be?
Now can you see why it is especially important for modern human beings to do backbends? And also why is it especially hard for us?
By allowing our hearts to open to the unexpected, we are letting go of our invisible cage, we are putting aside our fears of the unknown, we are unlatching ourselves from our own expectations, and most importantly, by surrendering, we are permitting ourselves to grow, to love and be loved in return, and to accept emotions such as grief, misery, joy, and happiness.