Interview with B.K.S. Iyengar on backbends part 2

Practitioners must understand the positioning of the muscles, most importantly, the positioning of the muscles and the positioning of the joints when they are doing backbends, or injuries are bound to come. So I decided to conduct this intensive backbend class. Otherwise, until now I have only taught “touch and go” type of backbends.

Patricia: Would you like to say what the effect of backbends is on the emotions and the spirit?

Iyengar: First of all, backbends demand a lot of discriminative power and the emotional center is the torso, the trunk. You can keep your brain quiet, but have you ever experienced that you can keep your brain quiet but the mental thoughts move in the trunk? Can you keep from here to here [clavicle to belly] the silence which you keep here [brain], or which you keep in your limbs?

Victor: It’s very hard.

Iyengar: Very hard. And now to speak of the emotions—when you do backbends, what happens to the emotional center? Does it not open more? Does it not go to vastness? So as we say that the empty cup alone is useful, you are creating tremendous vastness so that it can accumulate [absorb and withstand] all types of pressures and strains. So emotionally there is no chance for a person who does backbends to get depressed or distressed. The beauty of backbends is that the person not only remains intellectually—not strong, remember the word stable. “Strong” means like a scorpion sting. So I don’t want that intellectual “strong”—the words, when you say he is intellectually strong, they’re not correct. Backbends give stability, or maturity, where there’s ripeness in the brain, ripeness in the emotion. So we cannot become victims easily, those who very accurately do backbends. You can take catastrophes with a calm mind, which others cannot do. Others have to build up, but for us it becomes a natural process. We need not build up. That’s the beauty of backbends.

Victor: The next question we have has to do with people’s practices at home. Are there guidelines you would like to give about what to do before backbends, and also afterwards, to avoid any problems in the back?

Iyengar: See, practically, in two weeks, you have the experience of what to do. I have been educating your spine; I have been educating your muscles, step by step, or you can say, progressively, preparing for backbends. The first day, it took one hour for me before you tried a backbend, and now, if you observe, you can see the video later, but the time that you took in preparation today was much less than in the beginning. That means you started very fast. So I built up. In backbends the receptivity in the cells and fibers and joints should be cultivated because the actions are very intense as you go on doing them. So as a learner or an athlete, start slowly, to build up power, to take a chance at the end to reach the zenith. And then afterwards, you should not be like your Olympic players who reach the final stage and do not know how to bring back that used energy. In many cases they depend on drugs. They go to the doctor immediately or they take pills. Backbends are demanding like that. They are athletic poses to a great extent. So what I did for you or what we naturally should do first is to build up that energy, knowing very well that you have to do backbends. Then when you do a lot of backbends the blood is circulated with such speed, you know, with such force in the system that a practitioner will feel the hotness of the body. So as that body is warmer than normal, we give soothing or cooling poses afterwards. Soothing and cooling poses like dog pose, a little Virasana, which I taught today, bending forward, and lateral Uttanasana, are given so that the temperature of the body which increased in the backbends is brought back to normal. And that is the natural “pill” to come back to life. So every session they should learn how to start and how to end. Not just doing backbends and their job is over. Or as I overheard someone say, “I have done backbends, now let me do Savasana.” No.

Patricia: You don’t think that the seated twists are a good way to end a session of backbends?

Iyengar: No. Because you have already overstrained the spine, so even lateral movements of the spine mean you are exerting further. I have explained to you that in backbends the anterior spine is extended to such an extent, that afterwards, you need to do a little Prasarita Padottanasana, Uttanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana—poses where the posterior spine works and gives automatic rest to the anterior spine. So the heat in the system is diffused. Then you can do anything in the world afterwards.

Patricia: And what about passive Paschimottanasana, which a lot of people like to do after backbends?

Iyengar: No. See, unless and until your spine can respond to a backward and forward movement at the same time, you should not do it. If you can, it’s all right. But a beginner, if he does Chakra Bandasana and then passive Paschimottanasana, he will get such a catch in the spine he might end up in bed for six weeks.You cannot reach the counterpose, whether it is passive or active, at once. So you have to give some time for the used muscles to set in their positions. After that, if you try, it’s all right. That’s what I said, we do these poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana—that is a half backbend, half forward bend. It’s not a full forward bend. Uttanasana as it is practiced after backbends also is a half forward bend because there is no pull on the spine; the weight is on the legs, the spine is passive. But when you do Paschimottanasana, thespine is active. So you have not allowed the spine to become cool by stretching. These cycles have to be known. This has been lost, the cycles are lost. So we have to educate pupils that they should not do the counterpose at once. I can do it, because my body can move both ways. But for beginners, it’s impossible. If they strive to do it because a teacher says they should and then the muscles snap, yoga gets a bad name. Why take unnecessary risks and bring a bad name to the art when the art is so superb? Remember, when you use the gears of a car you have to come to neutral to change. Backbends are like high gear, and from high gear you can’t jump to low gear, you have to come to neutral and you have to wait for some time. You have to observe: the car may come to neutral soon, but your spine does not come to the neutral position very soon; it takes a little longer time. And you should observe, when you are in Tadasana, when you start your practice with Tadasana, what sensation you get in your back. There is no tension, right? There is no tension; the only tension is in your legs because the spine is very healthy, it adjusts itself. So, after backbends, when you do Tadasana, you should feel whether the muscles of the spine are as passive as they were when you started Tadasana. That means your body has become cool. Then you can do anything. You can do forward bends, you can jump, you can do anything. And this also should be known to the advanced students, who do backbends, that Bakasana is a far better forward bend than any other forward bend. Don’t say “it’s only balancing.”

Patricia: I never thought of it as a forward bend.

Iyengar: When there is a backache, if you do Paschimottanasana, it does not relieve you. Do Bakasana, it relieves you. Because the hardness of the sacroiliac muscle, the hardness of the lumbar in Paschimottansana means you are extending. In Bakasana you are curving the spine, resting, and in the resting, you are responding. So my pupils should know that Bakasana is a superior forward bend. It’s certainly a balancing pose but it’s a forward balancing pose—not like Urdhva Kukktasana. In Urdhva Kukkutasana you have to curve the spine, but in Bakasana you have to spread the posterior muscles of the spine. That’s the beauty of Bakasana.

Victor: But you’re not teaching balances in the intensive.

Iyengar: No. I can make even stiff bodies or beginners stay in Urdhva Dhanurasana for half a minute. But I can’t make them stay even ten seconds in Bakasana, so how can I teach it? If you know how to do balances, there are points we give which you can catch. If I teach you balancings one day; then you will know that it’s only “do this, do this, do this.” That’s all. And then if you catch those points, you have touched the zenith of the balancing poses. But it cannot be given in the pose, “do this way, do that way.” A lot of donkey work is involved in balancings—that means like a donkey which does not feel the load but carries on. Balancings are like that; you should go on doing, doing, doing. Whereas discriminative power has to be used in all the other poses. Even in Tadasana you have to do the discriminative pose.

Iyengar: No. I can make even stiff bodies or beginners stay in Urdhva Dhanurasana for half a minute. But I can’t make them stay even ten seconds in Bakasana, so how can I teach it? If you know how to do balances, there are points we give which you can catch. If I teach you balancings one day; then you will know that it’s only “do this, do this, do this.” That’s all. And then if you catch those points, you have touched the zenith of the balancing poses. But it cannot be given in the pose, “do this way, do that way.” A lot of donkey work is involved in balancings—that means like a donkey which does not feel the load but carries on. Balancings are like that; you should go on doing, doing, doing. Whereas discriminative power has to be used in all the other poses. Even in Tadasana you have to do the discriminative pose.

Patricia: In Light on Yoga you say that balances require more perseverance than all the other poses.

Iyengar: Because you cannot stay more than ten seconds. That’s why they cannot be taught but you can be shown at that moment, “do this, do this, do this.” Because the time in the pose is short, the points must be given quickly. So one day I’ll give two points, and say, “learn that.” Then after eight days, I will add two more. But in backbends I can go on giving a daily course, like a philosophical course. In balancings I cannot do that.

Patricia: How should menstruation or pregnancy affect a woman’s practice of backbends?

Iyengar: When she is not pregnant or menstruating, it does not affect her at all. But if a woman practices backbends during pregnancy, I can’t say what will happen. Because it is like a natural abortion, if you force it. If a pregnant woman does yoga it’s going to affect her. Because the child has to be held by the spine. So how can you do backbends where you are trying to expand the inner, anterior spine? They can’t go together. People must not go ahead and say “what does it matter?” They are playing with their lives. They play not only with their lives, they play with the life of the child which is in the uterus. During the first two months of pregnancy, backbends should not affect you. But afterwards, no chance, anything might happen. If you hold your breath, you could even injure the limbs of the child, how do I know? Anything might happen. Other times, it’s not a problem for women, it’s okay. During menstruation, women should not do backbends. After the menstrual period, the fourth and fifth day, the body will be very tired, but from the sixth day onwards one can do. Women especially must be careful not to do backbends from the abdominal organs. Those organs should not become hard. Periods may stop altogether if the abdominal area is taking the load in backbends. The breath should move freely. If there is hardness in the abdomen during backbends the nerves become like strings pulled tight. To do backbends, the extremities must be built up, creating strength in the arms, legs, and back. Stability must be created in the shoulders, the feet, and the upper arm and upper leg. Sometimes periods may stop if backbends are done very fast. If too many backbends are done, the cycle between periods may be disturbed. If periods stop or come closer together the backbend practice shoulbe modified or lessened. It might be necessary to do only more passive backbends for a time. Supta baddha konasana is a good pose to practice if there are menstrual difficulties.