The Painful Side of Bending Back

Just because you can bend back, does that mean that you should?

One of my regular yoga students has a gorgeous asana practice (referring to the physical postures) – she flows from posture to posture seamlessly, floating with grace and ease. Some of her most beautiful and deepest expressions of postures are her backbends…she seems almost limitless in how fully she can enter each bend. I remember one of the first times she came to my class I felt somewhat jealous that my body is not as lithe, lean, bendy as hers. I felt nervous to approach her to give adjustments or tips – what could I teach someone with such a beautiful practice?

At the end of class, she approached me. She said that she had been dealing with intense back pain and wondered what she should do about it. We talked about her practice and quickly came to realize that while she was so flexible, she was missing strength and stability. Pushing her backbends to the limit, working to achieve a deeper expression of each posture, she was left with the pain of too much. Too much flexibility, too much bending back, not enough limit setting, not enough strength.

You know how to stay safe when bending back? You know when to STOP. You get STRONGER. You think about how bending back isn’t just about your back – all pieces of you are connected and will impact one another in ways both helpful and harmful.

It might look incredible right now to get your foot to your head in pigeon, you might not want to be the only person in class choosing bridge over wheel, you might get a thrill or a congratulations by finding a fuller expression in dancer. It’s fun, I’ve been there! And there is nothing wrong with that. Yoga helps people gain flexibility, and it is cool to see progress.

But…sometimes we don’t need to be more flexible, we are flexible enough. What we need is strength, boundaries, a limit to say “sure, I can, but I’m not going to.” It’s not about the thrill of right now or bending a little further, it’s about taking care of myself and staying balanced…the impact of bending too far builds up over time.

Insert obvious parallel to life.

Find your limit to bending back or you will eventually find yourself in pain.

…And don’t think that just because you say yes out of interest or because you LIKE doing things for others and not because of guilt that I’m not talking to you. It doesn’t matter WHY we are always bending back, there is always a limit. It can be very tempting to bend back a little further. The short term ramifications are often positive, even enviable. In the short-term, what can seem like incredible drive, incredible kindness, incredible support for others can leave us in pain, weak, and having a hard time coming back to upright if we aren’t careful about observing our own limits. No matter if it’s at work, in your relationship with your yourself, your partner, or your kids, find a limit. Build strength to complement that flexibility.

At 27, I already learned this the hard way. A couple of years ago, I had an older, wiser friend of mine sit in on an interview I was in (strange circumstance, yes). The interview went well, I got the job, and afterwards my friend congratulated me on how well I had interviewed…although suggested that when they were discussing my afterwards, the con they came up with was that I may have “trouble saying no.” I smiled and agreed outwardly but on the inside was scoffing. Please, I thought, I’m motivated and have a lot of interests, nothing wrong with that. I’m not weak or afraid to say no, I thought. She’s mistaken.

Two years later, I’m plotting big life changes, running away from stress, sick more often than I want, procrastinating (a very new thing for me), and feeling tired. I found my limit. I sprinted past it a long time ago. I’m trying to find my way back.

I’m not saying that your balance is mine. You might not even need to work on setting a limit. Some people need to take the risk of bending a little further, opening up, realizing that muscling your way through everything in life will leave you rigid and inflexible. Conversely, some people are truly content saying yes a little more, giving to others, finding true satisfaction through flexibility and openness. Don’t let me set your limit; practice listening to your own intuition. Fine-tune your own gauge.

The beauty is that when we find the balance of strength and flexibility, bending back just enough while still respecting the intricate balance of many moving parts, that is when our heart opens, we find bliss, and we are able to, over time, bend a little deeper when we really need to.

And maybe one day, after enough careful practice, your foot will touch your head.

And maybe not. The nice thing is, it doesn’t matter. 🙂

(for tips on safe backbends, check out this article).


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