There was a time, a short time, where I could grasp my fingers to my ankles in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Mysore, 2003 during my time at AYRI in my early 30’s. Between the adjustments from Guruji and Sharath, I would have gone this deep 5 or 6 times, but more often just touching my fingertips to my heels. Super flexible people around me going all the way, every day, perhaps several times. A well known Japanese yogi had his hands on the back of his thighs and his head pretty much touching his backside.. in backbend!!! The look of concentration and vulnerability on his face remains with me. On those surreal days in Mysore I would feel quite nutty for the rest of the day… ungrounded, dizzy… not quite on the earth. Deep backbends are a lot for the nervous system to handle.
And then, upon my return to Australia, with a winter, a brand new mortgage to pay- and real life- deep backbends were to be never again.
Within a few months of returning home I was pregnant with my first child ( pregnancy being the only time in my 25+ years of daily practice of various traditions of yoga where I have had days off- and plenty of them). He wasn’t a sleeper, that first baby, practice became maintenance only, and even though practice was daily, it was nothing on what was possible before. Back in those self centered days when I didn’t have responsibilities …. and wasn’t utterly, unfathomably exhausted.
After recovering my sleep, strength and sanity… getting back to drop-backs and coming back up, along came my second child. In there were 5 or so years in total of breast-feeding my children into toddlerhood (all that rounding of the shoulders greatly reducing my shoulder flexibility), the years of never, ever getting to a Mysore class for adjustment or advice from a senior teacher (how can one get to a class at 6am when you haven’t got to sleep until 4am?), some big life shake ups requiring mental strength and moral fibre and all those kinds of things that get in the way of physical progression. That get in the way of maintaining deep backbends.
At first I missed them dearly, along with the thrill of achievement, the whacked out feeling after such an intense curve of the spine… I even hankered after those side effects.
But whenever I expanded my practice back into deep backbend territory my body would tell me otherwise. Urdhva Dhanurasana exacerbated my carpal tunnel syndrome more than any other repetitive strain- and in my daily life I had quite a few of them adding to the condition.
The extreme flexion of the wrists required to be stable in UD irritated my wrist nerves so that often I was in extraordinary pain at night- I couldn’t sleep- my fingers tingling and going numb, my hands in claws. But the next morning on the mat I would, more often than not, find myself doing a basic backbend sequence anyway.
Yes, I ignored it, as you do with things that only happen at night and barely effect you by day… occasionally dropping the backbends for months at a time but pretty much ignoring the CTS for 10 years. Until I found myself dropping cups and plates by day with increasing nerve damage causing loss of sensation in my fingers. Every night a full nights sleep was impossible for the pain… even with the kids now sleeping.
It was the surgery that shifted things for me… many yogis will tell you, injury is a great teacher. For me, accepting that an injury had occurred at all was the hardest part. When I got nerve conduction tests done ( on the 4th separate time I was given a referral script from my doctor ) he told me I had severe carpal tunnel, unusual for my body type
( most carpal tunnel syndrome occurs in obese patients ), and asked me how I could have left it for so long. I didn’t have an answer.
I remember waking up from surgery- a very simple procedure- and straight away being able to feel my middle finger again. A traditional Ashtanga practice was out for months. I discovered Matthew Sweeney’s Chandra Moon sequence which was a saviour, adapting it to keep weight off my hands. I used blocks with grip bars in them to keep the wrists straight. (I still practice the moon sequence series regularly to mix things up with my Ashtanga practice, relieve the standing series boredom of a long term practitioner, shift some of that physical repetition on the joints and muscles, and to work fully into all areas of the hips).
After surgery it took more than 18 months to be able to support weight in the hands in such intense flexion. Most back-bending practice was from the knees ( Ushtrasana, Laghu Varjasana etc). I re-discovered bridge pose from my early Hatha yoga days- such a wonderful, simple pose as one can choose which areas of the spine to move into.
Then, back to trying Urdhva Dhanurasana.. Slowly, I could reach my fingers to the floor beside my ears- using a rolled up mat to reduce the angle of wrist flexion- and push up, feeling weak and oh so stiff, feeling awkward and old and nothing like I had back in Mysore, 2003.
Gradually I began to realise what a great pose Urdhva Dhanurasana is- practiced as it is, a simple wheel. Old school, no frills… a nice arc with a gentle evenness, the vertebrae working towards equilibrium. The feet and hands planted strongly, open through the chest and lungs, deeply centered through the abdominals, the groins rotating to allow movement in the sacrum.
Done this way, the wheel is grounding. None of that mad, untethered, spaciness that deep backbends can cause. Sure, it gets you a little high, a nice rush of joy to start the day… but nothing that prevents me from coming in from my morning practice to make the kids lunch, negotiating homework, shoes and socks and getting them off to school.
So that is how I practice backbends now- and plan to continue- happily, for the next 25 years.