Big important subroutine this, deepest forward bend to one of the deepest backbends.
Forward bend first.
Most of the notes I add to these posts will be little tips and hints that have come up in my practice while working with the subroutines over the last couple of years or perhaps carry overs from the Ashtanga community that might be useful in the Vinyasa Krama context. This one though concerns safety.
Engage your bandhas and stick your backside out!
When I practice forward bend I have the seated forward bend, paschimottanasana, in mind. Ramaswami would encourage us to stretch out of our hips as we folded over. This was the only other posture I remember him giving a hands on assist. He would come behind us, put his hands above the coccyx, push the sacrum forward and keep pushing forward while we were in the pose, then he would encourage us to take turns doing the same on each other.
I'm also reminded of a video I saw of Dharma Mittra demonstrating paschimottanasana. He would have you sit with your knees slightly bent and then shuffle back so your sitting forward on your sit bones which helps to flatten the legs, taking your backside further and further back before folding over.
All these are reminders that the forward bend is happening form the hips rather than starting at the spine. In that first picture above, stretch up out of your pelvis as before and then as you bend over from the hip really stick your backside out, push it back, it's kind of like a counterweight, same thing happens in a headstand when you bring your legs down into inverted staff, your backside goes further and further back, if it didn't you'd fall out of your headstand.
This takes a lot of the pressure off your back.
Notice the first picture is Ardha Uttanasana, half forward bend. Ramaswami would have us fold to there and then come back up, we might repeat that 2-6 times and that might be as far as your comfortable going. You could then do the other hand/arm variations in the half bend rather than the full. Of course you could work into it too, star with disa uttanasana (sanskrit check, quarter forward bend?) or less and work up to half bend.
When I started yoga five years ago my hands could only reach half way down my shins.
Another way to take take some pressure of your back in forward bending is to engage the bandhas, more on these in a future post ( there are notes at the beginning of my book) Simply put for now, contract your anus, draw it up, with some practice you'll feel like your gripping the base of your spine, Ramaswami has a fishing rod analogy, holding the base of the spine like the handle of a fishing rod. You should feel your stomach come back and up a little too, encourage that, suck it back a little further, up a little more. Bandhas help give you a firm, secure base to begin your bending whether forward or back.
The bandhas help with the backbends too, think fishing rod whenever you do backbends and hold firmly onto the base of your spine.
In Ashtanga we call the Tiryang mukha Uttanasana mini subroutine we see here a dropback and there are hundreds of blog posts on it (fifty odd on mine alone). It's challenging and something to work towards. Unless your eight in which case you'll probably drop back into it without even thinking.
You might want to work at urdhva Danurasana in the bow sequence first, become comfortable there and strong in your arms and shoulders lifting up into it there before trying to drop back into it here.
If this is a posture that's available to you then a couple of tips that have worked for me lately are..
1. Ramaswami's fishing rod analogy above, engaging the bandhas so it feels like your gripping the base of your spine and holding on all the way down and back up.
2. Remembering that this is a back stretch rather than back bend, really stretch up and lift out of your pelvis. The backstretch begins in your toes and ends in your fingertips.
3. Just as with the forward bend don't think of this as a spinal bend but rather that it begins at the hips. Where you pushed your hips back in Uttanasan above, here you push your hips forward, as far forward as possible.
4. It's good to work at the wall as you practice this. Take a few steps out from the wall and drop back as far down the wall as feels comfortable and use the wall to push off to come back up, remembering to start the return motion by shifting your hips forward.
keep working a little further down the wall.
I still find dropping back near the wall for the first couple useful. I can do it without it but it takes the pressure off for the first couple of these and thus any strain. I might tap lightly off the wall coming up the first one or two,
I tend to do five to seven of these. The first couple I tap off the wall the next three I just come up to standing and then drop back again. The last two I'll come up and then fold over into my forward bend.
5. be mindful when moving from the backbend to the forward bend, don't forget to go from shifting your hips forward for the backbend to shifing them back, sticking your backside out for the forward bend
6. Ramaswami seems to have you doing the backbend with your feet together as in most of the On your feet sequence. I find this challenging, it's unstable. I've done it that way but I prefer to have my feel t a little apart.
7. Ramaswami also talks about coming up on the exhalation. I've always done it on the inhalation although coming up on the exhalation is interesting, I'll often do both.
8. Feet feet turned out or lifting heels? Both are probably bad habits. I used to turn my feet out now I keep them closer together and parallel but lift my heels a little as i drop back the last little bit and just as I come up.
9. If your about to drop back for the first time, your confident in your urdhava danhurasana, you've been dropping back half way to the wall for a little while and as you work on your backbend you can see the floor, your feeling brave. OK, one last tip, KEEP YOUR ARMS STRONG. The tendency is to collapse your arms a little as you land which means your the top of your head bangs against the mat ( see HERE). If you keep your arms strong as your hands touch the mat you should be fine.
10. Type backbending or drop back into my Ashtanga blog, you'll find a lot of posts with all kinds of ideas. most of these come from the community, tips and hints that have worked for others.
Here are some posts on back bending you might find useful