Sunday, June 19, 2011

Yoga Therapy: Backbends and Emotional Release

photo courtesy of
camel pose or ustrasana (ustra meaning camel in sanskrit) is one of the first backbending poses i ever learned in yoga. my first yoga class was 7 years ago in a Bikram or hot yoga class and let me tell you, it kicked my ass. i was soaking wet in sweat and i felt like every cell and muscle in my body had been wrung out like a sopping rag. it was the most difficult 90 minutes of my life but the only thing that got me through it was focusing on my breath - something i had never done before.  although i don't practice Bikram or hot yoga anymore for reasons i'll get into later on, my first class was a blessing because for the first time in my life i learned how to breathe. (breathing is something we vastly underestimate.) it was also the first time in my life that i stretched certain areas of my body.

camel pose, because it stretches the entire front of the body (abdomen, chest, throat, thighs, groin) and stimulates the organs of the neck and abdomen (our "guts" otherwise known as our second brain), is an intense pose that can open a floodgate of emotions for many people. actually, any pose in yoga can be intensely emotional because our body stores memories and emotions deep within the tissues and cells. stretching the stomach in a way that we've never stretched before can bring up a flurry of icky feelings or memories we may have suppressed. backbends are also intense poses in yoga because they leave the front of our bodies completely exposed. the front of the body is home to our most vital organs (heart, lungs, guts) and back in caveman era, if we were attacked from the front we would die instantly. therefore, exposing our frontal body is extremely vulnerable since our primal instinct is to protect ourselves. the reptilian brain (closest to our spinal cord) is hardwired for self-defense and fight-or-flight mode and so practicing backbends is extremely beneficial because they help us overcome the fear of being attacked or the fear of being vulnerable. 

it is important to learn backbends slowly. they can be both problematic but also hugely beneficial (when done correctly) for those with back issues.  i would not recommend jumping into camel pose if you have not yet taken a beginner's class with a skilled teacher. i learned backbends the hard way - like a toddler who is taught how to swim by being tossed in a lake. the intensity of emotions i felt after my first camel pose was insane. i remember feeling like i was going to pass out immediately, like the ground was no longer steady. the instructor recommended we go into child's pose after coming out of camel, a good counter-stretch to camel because it is a forward fold and a safe position where all of our internal and frontal organs are protected. oddly i don't remember how i got from camel pose into child's pose (i literally blacked out), but i do i remember laying there on top of my sticky, wet thighs thinking "holy shit. what was that?" whatever i had been storing was being released and the emotions came flooding out of my cells in tsunami-like waves. connecting back to my breath was key because the breath is the anchor. the breath is the only bodily function we can consciously control. we can't think "ok, i'm going to get my heart to pump blood to my veins now..." but we can consciously take in a full belly breath and exhale that breath out slowly. when we are focusing on our breath it means we are not focusing on anything else. we are not letting our silly, fearful minds take over. we are simply focusing on the breath and letting the body do its thing because the body is miraculously good at healing itself - so long as we aren't getting in its way by amping up our nervous system all the time by listening to irrational, fear-based and untrue thoughts. 

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