I hate backbends. They make me anxious. I feel like I can’t breathe, and that something bad is going to happen while I am completely vulnerable and unable to quickly move out of the way. So for many years I have done what any sensible person would do faced with that scenario: grimaced through them in class and avoided them altogether in private practice.
Forward bends, on the other hand, are my friend. I love stretching my body out along my legs, and feel completely at peace and ease in any of the standing poses that involve hanging over my hips.
My favouring can be traced back to my pre-teen life as an aspiring ballerina. In ballet, forward bends are prized, almost as much (but not quite) as turnouts (rotating the leg from the hips to make the knee and foot turn outward).
I was hopeless at turnouts, but remember as a six-year-old proudly banging my chest on to the floor when asked to bend forward between wide straight legs (a ballet version of Upavistha Konasana – wide-seated forward bend pose).
If backbends are also taught in ballet, they arrived later in the curriculum than my truncated career allowed.
Once I told a friend who happens to also teach yoga about my loathing of backbends. She answered the way any good yoga teacher would: “That means you need more of them” and when I scowled, added: “You will fall in love with them. They are all about opening up the heart.” Ouch. Her words came at a time when I was experiencing and re-experiencing lifelong pain relating to a number of significant personal relationships. My pattern is to retreat from hurt, and keep myself closed. Her words rang around in my ears for some years before I began to embrace them. But it took my mother to finally bring the lesson home.
Mum is living in aged care. She entered there six years ago aged 67, as a strong, fit, slim woman who had walked her five dogs for two hours a day each morning on a long sandy beach in Western Australia. Her need for aged care did not relate to her physical health; instead it was her failing memory that needed care and intervention. While she remains in appropriate accommodation, one of the side-effects of her current care is the lack of physical exercise. Over the past few years I have watched her put on weight, and begin to shuffle rather than walk, staring at the ground in front of her feet. When we walked, I found myself asking her over and over again to lift her knees and look at the horizon, asking her to recall her long walks on the beach. My coaching had only momentary effect before she would once again revert to her navel. One day, I went to visit her and found her, sitting at the dining table, asleep, with her chin on her chest and her spine rounded like a walking stick. She had turned into an old person.
I wasn’t going to settle for that. I decided to reach back into her life, and remembered that when she was in her 20s and 30s, she had regularly practiced yoga. Thinking it might re-kindle a happy time in her life, I found a local yoga teacher willing to give her private lessons, once a week, in her room. Mum’s stiffness was so great that the first lesson involved little more than arm stretching. But Julia was intuitive. Hearing chest congestion and seeing the slumped shoulders, she asked Mum to place her hand on her heart. Then, whenever she saw her collapse into her chest she told her “lift your heart up”.
Mum has now had about six weeks of weekly lessons. I don’t believe Julia has yet had her on a mat; instead she has focused on that most basic of standing poses: standing. Usually, Mum forgets people as soon as she has met them and rarely recalls a conversation. But she has starting asking after Julia and when she is next going to visit. The other day my brother visited her and was stunned to hear her tell him to “walk tall, walk straight and look the world in the eye”. She’s started lifting her heart up.
That’s enough inspiration for me. I am ready to open my heart. And, when I’m 73, or 83, or 93, I want to still be looking the world in the eye. So Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose), here I come. I am ready to face my fear.