Interview with B.K.S. Iyengar on backbends part 3

Victor: You’ve asked the group that’s taking this seminar to do an inversion practice every afternoon and to pay particular attention to some of the Padmasana variations and to Sarvangasana.

Iyengar: Yes. A few minutes ago Patricia asked me what about twists, what about lateral movements? Now you can understand how many hours gap I have given, before having you do the lateral movements. When you do them after waiting several hours, the soreness of the backbends will not come at all. That’s what I said the very first day, and now you all have that experience. If you had not done the inversions every afternoon, particularly the lateral variations, you would not have been able to continue the class.

Patricia: That series has been so helpful and wonderful for all of us.

Iyengar: As I said, after the gap in time you can take the inversions and lateral movements. If you want to you can try, if you are willing to suffer, doing backbends and then immediately doing Sarvangasana. Find out whether you can stand on your legs that day. I’ve done all those things so I know how to safeguard my pupils. I’m not keen like a gymnast or an athlete, saying, “oh, doctor, give me some medicine,” after I’ve done wrong. I don’t disturb the inner glandular system, in the art of teaching. I don’t think my yoga students will suffer provided they follow these guidelines. If they say, “I don’t care, I will do backbends even when I’m menstruating,” then it is their strong-headedness and it could be that they will suffer certain diseases.

Patricia: Are there any conditions where you shouldn’t undertake a backward bending session or practice, other than menstruation?

Iyengar: When you are running a fever, or when you are really tired, or physically exhausted. A mature person can sometimes do even then, but a beginner should not. If there is a disturbance that shakes the nerves, due to family affairs or something, backbends cannot be done on that day.

Patricia: When you ‘re growing anxious or you’re under a lot of stress...

Iyengar: Then I advise you to do inverted poses, Sirsasana, then, with the support of the chair, Viparita Dandasana and Sarvangasana. So you have to keep Urdhva Dhanurasana only supported on the chair, Viparita Dandasana on the chair, Kapotasana on the chair. Then you should come back to normal. That can be done. But backbends independently, I say no. Don’t try independently in certain circumstances.

Victor: The converse of that question is, are there any conditions that you think indicate the need for more backbending to go into the practice?

Iyengar: There is no fixed rule for that. If you can do other poses very well, if you can face them you can try it.

Victor:... but are there medical conditions for which it’s particularly indicated?

Iyengar: I have already told you that backbending is meant for healthy people. When I say that to learn to do backbends, it’s like breeding race horses, that covers many things. I don’t just say it humorously. How much attention, how much care you have to give to maintain the body in a healthy state to perform backbends! It’s a necessity. It’s an essential factor. An unhealthy person cannot try.

Victor: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with the people that may watch the videos of the backbend intensive, people who are interested in deepening their backbend practice?

Iyengar: What more can I tell you? On the very first day I said that in backbends the load is on the nerves and you have to take care.

But I also say that with backbends, you have to be cautiously bold. Not carelessly bold. You have to descend to the dictation of the spine. You cannot command from the brain to do the poses. As you play with a child—when you play with a child you play in such a way that you guard the child from injuries. Similarly you have to play in backbends, guarding your spine.

One should never try to do backbends carelessly. You know that if you do Sirsasana carelessly you drop. So inverted poses and backbends have to be done carefully. If you do something a little wrong in standing poses you may feel a little pain, you know you tear this tendon or that fiber or something, but in backbends, the injury will be weeks in healing. So my advice is to be bold with the postures, but also to guard the body. You have to keep your mind, your intelligence, and your will power in such a state that they do not trespass and disturb the body.

When you do backbends, you have to rethink; you have to start from the beginning. So never allow people to look at the videos and to jump immediately to do anything. It is like keeping your money in safehold for several months and then you go to the bank and take what you need and again leave the rest safe in the bank. So these videos have to be kept unless and until someone is ready to start. The videos are a guide. But all pupils who want to try should get the basic instructions from the teachers. After that, the video will be a very great help. Because I don’t instruct like others, you know, “do this, do that, do this way.” I’m giving the accuracy of the presentation. All cannot touch the accuracy immediately. So the videotapes are for later use. First, with the help of the teachers, get the basic ground to practice. Then I think the video will be helpful. Not before.

But students of various levels can watch the videotapes of backbends to get the format of how to practice, and to observe some of the intricacies. If they observe properly, they will have a thorough picture of the poses to help them start well when they are ready.

Patricia: A lot of poses that we’re working on, like Kapotasana and Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana, I really haven’t been taught. I’ve watched people do them but I haven’t had formal instruction.

Iyengar: Instruction should be given on the positioning of the parts of the body. You should not disturb at all, even in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Today, in Viparita Dandasana, I made you all to do like Tadasana. So healthy adjustments are very important, the positioning of the cells, positioning of the spinal vertebrae, and positioning of the joints. I showed how to squeeze, how to stretch. You can easily see these points on the video. So youngsters who want to learn can catch the important major points. They speak of ‘‘budding artists” so why not “budding yogis”?

Patricia: What happens to the mind in backbends that is different from other poses?

Iyengar: The spine is the root of the human system. Standing poses are the beginning. In standing poses, you move forward and backward as a peripheral action you can take deeper later, with twists and all those things. In twists, the side muscles of the spine are activated. In forward bends the posterior muscles and vertebrae are activated. But in these poses we never use the anterior spine to such an extent that it also is bathed in blood, as it is in backbends.

When you do these asanas, you are educating the entire human system without forgetting even the invisible parts of the bodies. Even the toes are activated in certain poses, particularly in backbends. The sternum also is activated in backbends. That area nobody knows. Only in backbends can you touch that part. Otherwise, for many people, it’s hollow.

Backbends, when they are done correctly, allow you to touch the human system as a whole. In other poses you touch from the outside. In backbends you touch from inside. So we know how to educate the mind in both ways. In Sirsasana, or forward bends or balancings, your mind is an extrovert. Of all the poses, it’s only in backbendings that your mind is going in. You hit your mind toward the internal body.

Even in forward bends, you have to use the mind which is on the outer body, but in backbends the outer mind doesn’t work at all, the inner mind works. And you see that the inner mind is in command over the outer mind. And that’s the beauty of it—then you are touching everywhere.

People may not understand when I speak of the mind. It’s the subconscious mind which is awakened in backbends and that’s why when you do a lot of backbends you will never become emotionally disturbed because the subconscious mind is made conscious throughout in backbends. It’s not a question of the physical body’s stamina. The subconscious mind is made to be more than conscious in backbends. In other poses your subconscious mind will be sleeping. Or unoccupied. The conscious brain alone works. Only in backbends the unconscious or the subconscious mind works. That’s the beauty of it.

And that’s why I say it takes a long time. Sub means below, below the level. So in backbends we bring the mind to all the levels. That’s the beauty of backbends. Emotionally we can never be disturbed, for the emotional center has become an extrovert. When you do Viparita Dandasana, your head looks backwards. But your conscious mind stretches everywhere. So you must study the subject this way. You go on studying. Then you know not only is there a freedom to the spine, there is a freedom to the spirit.