Sonia Frydrych shares why backbends are a useful tool to fight depression and anxiety.
I was introduced to yoga by my best friend and the first asana he made me try was a headstand. I was instantly fascinated by how good this felt. At the time, my friend and I had little knowledge about the subject. He would learn by reading instructions from a book but he did manage to get me upside down and it felt magical. This was around 2014 and the two of us were into CrossFit workouts and added a few elements of yoga to our post-workout stretching sessions. I didn’t imagine back then that in just three years, I would stop weightlifting and shift my focus to a calm practice like yoga. I felt naturally drawn to ashtanga. I find peace and steadiness on the mat but there are days when I don’t feel balanced at all. Even though the sequence remains the same, each practice feels different as I observe the flow of thoughts and emerging feelings.
I will confess that initially, I didn’t go to a yoga studio and tried to teach myself by watching videos of Kino McGregor and Laruga Glaser. In a way, they were my first teachers but I don’t recommend this way of learning. As I come from a fitness background, I had an understanding of my body but realised that yoga cannot be learned by watching videos. So I decided to do a Teacher’s Training in Ashtanga and Hatha yoga only to improve my own practice and teach myself. I was guided by Santosh Kumar of the Yogadarshanam school in Mysore and practiced on my own until October 2020, when I was accepted as a student to Vijay Kumar and at present, I’m learning traditional ashtanga yoga with him.
When I first tried poses like urdhva dhanurasana and purna bhujangasana, they felt familiar as I did similar exercises during the opening of local school Olympics at age 7. As a result, I wasn’t intimidated by backbends but found them beautiful and enjoyed the challenge these poses bring to the practice. Backbends are great for the spine and offer several physical, emotional and spiritual benefits to practitioners. They activate the anahata chakra and remove feelings of grief, fear and loss replacing them with love and gratitude. I personally believe that bending our spine helps us to release fears and anxieties in the solar plexus and allows us to let go of the past and move towards self-confidence and compassion.
One of my favourite backbends is urdhva dhanurasana. Physically, it strengthens the spine, arms, buttocks, wrist, neck, lower back and shoulders. It also opens our chest and expands our lungs for ease of breathing. It is considered as an asana that has the power to fight depression. This happens due to the slightly difficult nature of this pose that requires us to be extremely attentive while doing it. This focused approach eventually builds our confidence and keeps stress and anxiety at bay.
My approach to yoga practice is pragmatic. I’m aware of the immense physical and mental health benefits regular practice can bring into my life. I would be dishonest if I said it is always easy and blissful. On the contrary, it requires self-discipline, determination, and demands that we face our strengths and weaknesses. I have deconstructed how to move into urdhva dhanurasana below but please don’t attempt this posture if you suffer from wrist pain, migraines, high blood pressure, back pain or any kind of deep shoulder, arm and leg injury. Do not attempt this posture on your own if you are a beginner to the practice. It must be performed under the guidance of an authorised teacher.
Asana to Strengthen the Spine
Start by lying supine on the floor and take a few deep breaths.
Bend your knees and keep your feet on the floor with your heels as close to your sitting bones as possible. Bend your elbows and spread your palms on the floor in line with your head, fingers pointing towards your shoulders. The forearms are relatively perpendicular to the floor.
Pressing your feet actively into the floor, exhale and push your tailbone up toward the pubis and lift your buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet parallel. Take two or three breaths. Then, firmly press your hands into the floor drawing your shoulder blades towards each other and lift up onto the crown of your head (if you can’t do this, just move into the final pose by raising the body as explained in the next point). Keep your arms parallel. Stay here and take a few deep breaths.
To move into the final posture, inhale and on the exhalation, press your feet and hands into the floor lifting your tailbone and head off the floor. Turn your thighs slightly inward and keep them firm. Try to keep your arms as straight as you can. Spread the shoulder blades across your back and let your head hang or lift it slightly to look down at the floor. Stay in the pose for five deep breaths. To release the posture, tuck your chin into your chest and slowly lower your body back to the floor. Make sure to do it gently, avoiding any jerky moves. Try to do the pose three times.
Sonia Frydrych is a Mysore-based photographer and ashtanga yoga practitioner. To find out more, follow her on @soniafrydrych