Building a Bridge, over troubled waters…

Setu Bandasana, or Bridge Pose, is one of my all time favorite backbends. It is a simple posture, but very effective for toning the muscles along the spine, strengthening the hamstrings and legs, opening the hips, enhancing posture, revitalizing energy, emphasizing breath and for opening the shoulders, chest and heart. To begin, place the feet hips width apart. Turn the feet straight forward- so the second toe points straight ahead. Keep the thighs parallel with one another- so the knees do not collapse too far in or out- the knees point toward the second toe, the central pillar of the foot. Place your arms down by your sides, and take a few slow, deep breaths to center yourself before moving into the posture. With an exhale, press down through the four corners of the feet, lengthen the tail forward, and slowly lift the hips and spine. You may interlace the fingers behind the back, or hold the edge of the mat with your hands- press down into the shoulders and upper arms, lift the chest, and draw the shoulder heads lightly underneath you- so that the chest widens. To create a steady foundation of  your bridge, continue to press down through the four corners of both feet, especially into the center of the heels, lift the inner arches of the feet up, as you draw the outer ankles in. Press the tops of the shoulders, the upper arms and elbows into the ground. As you root down through your foundation, allow the thoracic spine (upper back) to move up into the body. Breathe into the upper corners of the chest, as you press the shoulder blades forward toward the chest, allowing the chest to spread wide. Lift the chin slightly, so that the throat is open, and the cervical spine (neck) is lifted slightly away from the floor. Notice the more you lift the chest and deepen the backbend how the thighs may begin to sway out to the sides, how the arch of the bridge exaggerates into the lower back. Instead, keep the knees tracking to the second toe, steady over the center of the ankles, and roll the inner thighs toward the floor. If this is difficult to access, use a block between the inner thighs- hug the thighs into the block to engage the adductors, and roll the inner thighs down, as if to roll the block toward the floor. The tail will probably want to roll to the floor as well, so to balance your pose, lengthen the sacrum toward the back of the shins to elongate the lower back. Keep the eyes focused on a point above you, maintain a smooth and steady breath. When you are ready to come down, release the interlace of the fingers, open the shoulders, and slowly roll down through the spine, massaging the sides of the spine down until the hips land softly on the ground. You may rest your hands on your belly, and take a few breaths to experience the effect of the pose.

In the picture of me in Bridge pose, i should walk my feet a little forward, so my knees are directly above my heels- that would give my spine even more length to open!

i’ve been thinking alot these days about bringing balance between the opening of the chest, while maintaining length in the neck and low back. When we move into backbends, especially those postures that “open the heart,” we tend to push the lower back forward, and sit in the curve of our necks- as if, by opening that vulnerable space for our hearts to open, we lose the strength and integrity of the spine giving us support and length. As soon as you move into your backbend, notice if you are straining in the lower back or the neck. Because those regions of the spine are more mobile, the brunt force of the backbend usually goes there. Ideally, we want to create an even elongation throughout the spine- moving the emphasis of the backbend into the part of the spine that tends to be more mobile (usually, the thoracic spine or upper back), and resist movement where we are more flexible (usually, into the low back and neck). Even if it means making your backbend ’smaller,’ find more length in the lower back, by extending the tail or the buttock away from the back ribs, and in most backbends, by lengthening the base of the skull away from the nape of the neck. In bridge, you can lower your hips until you can create this length, but keep lifting the chin, so the back of the neck maintains its natural curve. A good backbend creates an even extension throughout the entire spine- as in any sturdy archway from an architectural standpoint. The breath should be steady and freely able to deepen.

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali teaches us that Asana should be steady and comfortable, “Sthira Sukham Asanam”… as Desikachar describes “Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation.” When this idea is practiced, it creates harmony and balance- the poses feel natural, organic. In Setu Bandasana, when we align the bones well and engage the muscles of the legs, upper arms and back to support this integrated alignment, the posture is steady. In rooting down through the legs and feet, the shoulders and arms, we create steadiness in the physical form- and we initiate freedom in the spine to elongate, space in the chest to open- and the breath can freely move through the body, tension in the physical form is dissolved, and the thoughts in the mind are pacified. Always seeking the balance of strength and ease, action and rest, effort and relaxation, the yogi experiences the true benefits of this practice.

Metaphorically, i think of this relationship like a bridge that, when built well, can lead us from one place to another. Creating balance and harmony in our postures, as in our lives, gives us the gift of being at peace and ease with ourselves. The more we create steadfastness in who we are, peace within ourselves, the more we can bring peace back out into the world. The longer i practice yoga, the more i think this is part of my mission in this life: to bring peace into the world. i admit (most humbly) that i guess i am looking to lead a quiet revolution- of spiritual seekers and peaceful rebels- who begin to look for this harmony and peace by drawing our attention at first within, to the vast universe of the Self- in order to radiate that peace back out into the world… radiate that healing light of peace out into the vast universe, where every beating heart in the whole of Infinity can share in this union of joy and harmony. We may begin in bridge pose… and who knows where that bridge will lead us to? ;)

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