Amongst my homework tasks for Teacher Training this month, I’ve been asked to discuss the need for strength in addition to flexibility and the importance of counter pose, both of which are about finding balance in asana practice. I thought a nice way to address these questions was by adding them to the blog (comments are welcome if you have further ideas on this!)
1. Strength vs. Flexibility
What better way to demonstrate the need for both strength and flexibility in equal measure than through a backbend pose? The spine gives us a wonderful combination of strength and flexibility with strong bones and large muscles. Regular backbends can help to protect this wonderful balance by increasing mobility while strengthening the supporting muscles around the skeleton, but we must take care not to rely on one more than the other in case of injury.
Personally, I sometimes favour flexibility over strength when it comes to backbend practice (a bad habit, I know!), and I have to make a conscious effort to balance these forces in order to execute the practice safely.
Having a flexible back is obviously helpful for backbend poses, but I must take particular care not to ignore the rest of the body, as there is a tendency to let the back do all the work. In practice, you need to engage the entire body to prevent injury, which means supporting through the arms and legs and engaging the shoulders and core.
Effective Backbend Preparation:
- Play around with mobilising the spine in different directions when warming up; perhaps with Cat/Cow variations, gentle twists and side bends.
- Sun Salutations are great preparation as they warm the entire body, but be gentle with your first one so that when you progress through Cobra or Upward Facing Dog, you don’t go straight into the full expression of the pose.
- The front of the chest and shoulders also need to be warmed up for backbend practice. I like to practice wide legged forward bend with the hands clasped behind (Prasarita Padottanasana C), to open the chest and shoulders in preparation.
- Backbends are also front stretches, which means they will benefit from an opening of the hips and surrounding muscles including the top of the the thighs.
- Core work can be helpful to do before backbends. By giving attention to the muscles on the front of the body, we are more likely to use the core safely. (Backbends can also be a really nice counter-stretch to core work).
“Yoga is the study of balance, and balance is the aim of all living creatures”
2. Purpose of Counter Pose
In yoga, most poses have counter poses which are designed to work alongside them. After moving our body in one direction, we can then move to an opposing or neutralising position to restore balance to the body.
For example, after a backbend posture, we will often move into a forward bend to counterbalance the pose. Backbends can be strenuous as they utilise different muscles than our normal day-to-day activities require. Reversing the sensations created with a counter pose can bring balance back to the body.
If you take a moment of rest after a pose, you will notice the way it makes you feel. This awareness will make it easier to know what counterpose your body needs. Some poses like side bends and twists are a counter pose in themselves. By stretching one side and then the other, you’ll find balance.
Example Counter Pose – Fish Pose:
One of my favourite counter poses is Fish Pose (Matsyasana), which is often used after Shoulder stand or Plough practice. The name of the posture derives from the fact that if you adopt the position in water, you will float. (I’m yet to actually try this!)
Fish Pose is great for the respiratory system, as the chest is stretched and the ribcage is able to expand which encourages you to breathe more deeply. In opening the chest, the heart centre is exposed which releases tension through the heart chakra.
(Try to hold the pose for half the time that you spent in the shoulder stand, in order to balance the stretching effects on your spine and surrounding muscles).
*Chakra (n): any of the seven major energy centres in the body.