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Jivamukti Focus of the Month, May 2013: Back to the Future

When our hearts are full of joy and compassion there is no room for anger, fear, blame, resentment, victimhood or any of the other negative emotions that afflict us. None of us want to be angry. None of us think that jealousy or resentment toward others is a good thing. When we see those emotions in ourselves, we don’t like it-for one thing, it makes us feel bad, both emotionally and physically-yet we find it very hard to let negative emotions go.

The practice of backbending can help. Backbends provide entry into the anahata (heart) chakra, located at the center of the chest. Anahata chakra is associated with our karmic relationships with others whom we feel have hurt us. When we bend backwards, we access our heart center and allow the experience of those relationships to come to the surface. That can be very scary, because it forces us to see that the source of negativity is within us, not in the others whom we usually feel have wronged us-we can only see things outside of us that we already have within us; nothing exists in the world except as a projection of our own minds. How we have treated others in our past creates the way others are treating us now. For that reason it is unwise to blame others for our suffering. Instead we should forgive and move forward, aligning with the power of love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to go with love; hate is just too heavy a burden to bear.” Backbends also stimulate the thymus gland, located behind the sternum and just under the throat. The thymus plays a significant role in our immune system, which can be suppressed when we dwell in dark emotions. Stimulating that gland can help keep our immune system working effectively and contribute to better health. Our physical, psychological and spiritual health is intertwined.

One obstacle to backbending is the fear of falling-which is actually the fear of death. The fear of falling is considered instinctual and so difficult to overcome. Fear is a safety measure-it alerts us to danger and triggers physiological reactions designed to protect us. The psoas muscle, which runs from the front of the spine through the pelvis and attaches to the femur bone in the thigh, is primarily responsible for hip flexion-bending forward. Fear causes the psoas to contract, closing the front of the body and protecting the internal organs. When fear becomes habitual, as it is for most of us in our culture, the psoas loses flexibility and makes bending backward scary and very difficult. But with the intelligent, regular practice of backbends over time, the psoas lengthens, our hearts are released of negative emotions and we experience less and less fear.

Backbends must be approached carefully. Before we begin, we must warm up the spine, which can be done with surya namaskar. Strengthening the legs is also essential for safe backbending. Practicing a series of standing asanas will bring much needed grounding and awareness into the legs. It is also a good idea to stretch the back of the body first through forward bends, which can help avoid cramps or other back pain, although doing backbends before forward bends can be safe with sufficient warm up. This is especially so if an inversion like shirshasana, pincha mayurasana or adho mukha vrikshasana is done at the start of the backbend series. A backbending sequence should always start with gentler backbending asanas, such as bhujangasana or shalabhasana, and progress through medium-difficult asanas, such as dhanurasana or ushtrasana, with the most extreme backbends, such as kapotasana or urdhva dhanurasana at the end of the sequence. It is also important not to alternate backbends and forward bends as part of a sequence. Because backbending pulls the spine into the body, while forward bending draws the spine towards the outer surface of the body, it is gentler and safer to group all backbends together separately from all forward bends, which should also be grouped together.

Essential to developing intelligence in backbends is to never hold your breath while practicing. Breathing should be strong, calm and continuous. Also maintaining an elevated intention in your mind while you are practicing will yield positive results. An example of an elevated intention while in a backbend might be to let go of anger towards another by focusing on that other person and with the inhale say, “blessing and love to” and with the exhale say the person’s name. It is best to do this silently.

Backbends take us into our future. As they open our heart, we begin to forgive others and let go of seeing ourselves as victims. We can through forgiveness dissolve the hurts that have kept us from our true nature, which is love. It is not possible to simultaneously play the victim and be a realized enlightened being. The choice is ours. With practice, we develop tremendous strength that enables us to move forward in life with a sense of adventure, fearlessly, with joy, confidence, compassion and love-the path to enlightenment.

-Sharon Gannon

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