The Psychology of Backbends
I titled this article "The Psychology of Backbends" and not "The Mechanism of Backbends" because not only am I not qualified to talk about the spinal movements during backbends but also there exist many good books on yoga that talk about the mechanism of the spine during backbends (please see the references below). Nevertheless, during my practice of deep backbends like kapotasana and drop backs and coming up, I observed a few mental states and wanted to connect it with the suggestions given to me by very experienced Ashtanga yoga teachers and that is what I would like to share here.
I had, sometime back, written an article titled, "Lessons from Kapotasana" where I described the states of fear and anxiety that can envelop someone, when doing this pose and also wrote about the measures to take to counter this fear and anxiety. I, now, elaborate a little more on this aspect in this article.
Firstly, backbends have many benefits, one of which is stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (the flight or fight system) and this is beneficial in overcoming lethargy and sluggishness. Have you ever seen someone falling asleep in Urdhva Dhanurasana ? Another major mental benefit of this pose is the development of resilience to fear. For this one has to face the fear first (with some tools, of course). Fear feeds on weakness. Therefore the more weak and floppy you feel while doing backbends or dropbacks, the more you will be under the grip of fear. Therefore to overcome fear, one needs to summon strength. This is usually done by strongly engaging the leg muscles, employing the moola bandha and opening the chest.
Engaging the leg muscles increases the connection with the ground and hence provides an anchor to stabilize the jittery mind
Moola bandha sends energy up through the body giving us the needed confidence
Opening the chest also promotes confidence (aren't victors in sports always shown with open chests ?)
For example, in dropbacks the inner thigh muscles are engaged, the toes are pointed forward and the feet kept hip distance apart. This is done to not only protect the lower back (otherwise we can use the lower back muscles more and cause lower back pain in the long run), but also to engage moola bandha and channel the energy into the hands all the way from the feet. If done correctly we should feel a surge of energy from the foot through the spine and into the straight arms. Watch this video of a drop back demonstration by the renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher, Laruga Glaser. See how straight and engaged her legs are till her hands touch the floor. Her arms are also straight, channeling the energy.
Therefore, the next time you are faced with fear during deep backbends summon strength by using the techniques mentioned above. This is what Patanjali says in Yoga Sutra 1.33. When you are bothered (badhane) by negative thoughts (vitarka), contemplate (bhavana) on the opposite (pratipaksha).