Last week when I was teaching, I had a student who did a standing backward bend so deep that her fingertips almost touched the floor (behind her). It's hard to picture, hard to fathom, but there she was, in the flesh, bending like a bow-- backwards.
People come to yoga with varying levels of innate flexibility. This certainly factors into how deeply a person can backward bend. And the more one practices backward bending, the deeper they can go, but I think there is something more to it. To deeply backward bend, you have be open to feeling really uncomfortable, scared, vulnerable. You have to be open to falling, to being dizzy, to losing a bit of control.
Backward bending is the body movement we do least in our lives. We forward bend to write, to drive, to cycle, to change diapers,to order a latte, to cook. Our bodies default to forward bending, making backward bending not only uncomfortable, but also unfamiliar and often scary.
I have been teaching for eleven years, and every year, I find that I am able to recognize more postural nuances in the bodies I am teaching. This is especially true in students I have taught regularly for years and years. The most common thing I see in the standing backward bend is ambivalence. It's so subtle. The neck is just a little bit tight, the jaw slightly clenched, the shoulders just a bit too hunched. This is the natural, pervasive fear of letting go, moving into the unknown.
The student with the deep deep beautiful backward bend was a first timer to The SweatBox. When she signed in, I got a brief overview of her life. For the past several years, she's lived all over the world, on several continents, going where the wind blew her. She was, as cliche as this might sound, a free spirit.
Of course I do not know this free-spirited woman at all. Perhaps she comes from a long line of Ukrainian gymnasts. Maybe she has that magic cartilage that just moves that way. But my suspicion is that it is likely a combination of things that give her the ability to U-Turn her spine. I suspect that this woman is a little bit more fearless than some of us, myself included.
And when I think about some of my long-time students, I can see that there is indeed a pattern. One student, a woman in her thirties who has been practicing for a couple of years, recently ended a long-term relationship, moved into her own place, decided she wanted a new career, and, moved to a whole new realm in her backward bend. Coincidence? I don't think so.
In life, it is the things we are least comfortable with that we have to push ourselves at the most. I think for me, with my uber-controlling, fairly rigid personality, backward bending will always feel difficult for me. I will probably always fight it like I do any kind of change, but I have noticed that when I let go more, when I open my mind, I actually go deeper. The other day in class, for the first time ever, Frani actually said, "Nice backbend Laura."