Better Back Bends

Since late last year, my yoga practice has changed quite a bit. The studio I used to go to only offered mixed level Vinyasa classes, mostly hot, and that was my practice for most of my yoga journey.

This year it would almost be 5 years for me, and you might think that one would learn and transform the most during the initial phase, within months or a year of learning yoga and subsequently things will plateau. But for me, it is completely not so! In 2016, which was 4 years of yoga, I learnt so much more. In 2016, I took up various teacher training courses and attended weekend immersion workshops which taught me so much. More importantly, I became more aware. I was more aware of what yoga I was doing, and this awareness is important was what led me on the road to improvement instead of being stagnant and just going through the motion class after class.

I attribute my improvement to the change in the type of practice I’ve been doing. Ever since I joined Pure, I started taking more Hatha classes. Now for those unfamiliar – Hatha is a static style of yoga. The point is to learn pose by pose and class is not all about fancy transitions or dynamic movements. Fancy transitions and dynamic movements are more of a Vinyasa yoga thing. Vinyasa is more appealing to those young and new to yoga because it is fun and only fun activities draw people back. As for Hatha yoga, some may find it too slow or boring and thus not opening their hearts to learn more about yoga, especially to young people with monkey minds and can’t calm down. But in reality, Hatha yoga IS the real yoga, the kind of yoga you find traditionally. I understand that it will not be very appealing to most people, especially newcomers and this whole zen kind of practice can turn people off. I only started on Hatha yoga at 4 years into yoga, after I was long over the phase where I’m just at yoga for fun or to move and sweat. I was at a place where I no longer cared if calories were burnt – I just wanted to learn more. And only in Hatha classes did I really learn more.

At Pure, there’re no mixed level classes. They label their classes under level 1, 2 or 3, so people can select their classes accordingly. Sidetracking, there are pros and cons about this specific level system. The pro is that level 2 and 3 classes are guaranteed to be intermediate and those with intermediate practice can learn new things. The con is that majority of classes are level 1, and in level 1 classes they would exclude intermediate poses like full inversions or deep back bends. For intermediate practitioners they won’t get to take their own more advanced options since these will not be given. For the mixed level classes like in other studios, the teachers can teach all sorts of funky poses but also give beginner options for those who are unable to do them. Therefore, there are a lot fewer classes for me to attend in Pure even though there are so many classes scheduled a day. The only thing I can do is try my best to make it for the level 2 classes which I can learn most from. On weekdays, they only have level 2 classes at 10:30am and 7:30pm/ 7:45pm. Personally I prefer 6pm or 6:30pm timeslot for evening classes but they are ALL level 1 classes. 7:30pm is too late for my liking especially since classes are 75 or 90 minute long. Doing a deep practice at night makes it hard for me to get good sleep. In summary, I only go for 8 – 10 classes a week at Pure now, compared to 9 – 12 classes a week at Hom, because there’s limited classes which I find worth my time going for. (Sidetracking, when I had both studios, I went for 14 – 17 classes a week).

I always go for 10:30am class (because I can) and have been doing so for a few months now led by Pure’s most popular teacher, Arun (he only has classes in mornings nowadays anyway). And before you think “who goes for class at 10:30am on weekdays?” – these classes are ALWAYS full. You need to book within 30 minutes when booking opens 2 days before at 9am, or else the class of 50+ vacancies will full. I once forgot to book until 10am and when I did so I was on waitlist #18 and I did not get in eventually. And the result? Totally worth the hype. I have made (and is still making) tremendous improvement in my understanding of yoga and my body is opening up in places which was hard to crack! The most obvious improvement for me will be the back bends. Be warned, his classes are really tough in the painful stretchy way. He makes you hold it for eternity because he believes that only with prolonged holding can your body start to loosen up.

(Side track again, but his popularity is based on true ability, and not because he’s insta-famous or some gives people a killer HIIT style class disguised as yoga like what most young and hip teachers do to be popular. His popularity is purely organic, after 12 years of presence, and not from marketing. His classes are popular among the serious yogis wanting to learn, many of whom have been practicing for many years and not those people looking for a workout. Many of the participants are yoga teachers or owners from other studios all over Singapore, so that makes him the teacher of teachers. Very inspiring indeed.)

For back bend class (Thursday 10:30am – 12pm), there will be a lot of focus on stretching your quads /psoas/ hip flexors, flexion shoulders (how much you can bring the arms back) and the opening of chest. All these preparation will be done for about 45 minutes until the body is really warmed up before we start doing the deep poses. And really, proper and safe back bends begins with open shoulders, chest and legs. Only this way will you not feel anything in your lumbar spine! I really swear by this, because I did experience lower back pain in the past when I attempted kapotasana and other back bends. Back then, I was just challenging the natural amount of bend I have in the lumbar spine, and not involving the legs enough to contribute to the final expression of the pose. Things are different now.

Preparatory pose 1 – quad stretching in low lunge

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In a low lunge (front knee directly above ankle), you bring your foot to your butt and then slowly lower your hips down. Slowly turn your torso to face the front and hold for at least a minute. Repeat on other side.

This quad stretch may be very intense to some people (or most people), but for me it’s nothing much. This is because I do not workout at all so my quads are not tight. Those who do run or cycle may experience a lot in this pose. You may find that your hips are up high, with both thighs being a 90deg angle to each other instead of 180deg I have here, but that is fine. The target is the quads of leg behind – you should feel the stretch there. It is not supposed to feel comfortable. Day by day of doing this, you will find that your hips can sink down lower and lower.

Preparatory pose 2 – twisted lunge with backbend

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Start with a low lunge. Bring the back foot to butt (like the first pose above), and use opposite hands to grab onto the ankle. Place other hand on mat in line with front foot. With hands on the heels of ankle on the back foot, using leg strength kick the back leg down towards the mat. The front hands should have minimal weight.

Looks can be deceiving – this looks like nothing much from this picture, but the feeling is INTENSE. Sometimes too much for me to take and I would cowardly exit while others are still holding. First thing to note: the back leg may be very far away from the ground. That’s where I started off, but week by week I see my leg going lower. Eventually my toes could reach, but let’s see how long I’ll take for front of the foot to ground down. Here you get both quad stretch AND to train that leg strength from kicking  back. It is also a nice opening for the shoulders.

So anyway, here’s my back bend progress for Feb 2017:

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King Cobra Pose

For the first time, I managed to do it with flat palms! With my palms flat, I could feel my pelvic going lower towards the mat. My front of thighs are more glued down to the mat than before as well. I started on my fingertips, allowing my shoulders and chest to feel as open as possible, before lowering both palms down. Apparently it works!

I first got into King Cobra Pose in March 2015.

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King Dancer Pose

When I first got into this pose in April 2016, I teared because it was such an intense stretch feeling all over, it was just too overwhelming. It took like 30 minutes of trying to flip the grip, climbing back from a strap and holding for 3 seconds for a picture against a wall because I couldn’t stand balanced. So much has improved now, and I’m working on kicking that leg higher. Flipping the grip and holding isn’t so much of an issue now, and I definitely can do it without the strap and get into the pose with higher success rate than before! I realised it’s all about the legs – how much that top leg can stay up is dependent on how strong it is and how open your quads and hamstrings are. When it was weak and tight, it was pulling me back the other way making the pose collapse/ impossible.

I first got into King Dancer Pose in April 2016.

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Kapotasana

It was during a Hatha 3 class where my body decided it was ready. The trick to to keep your legs very strong throughout, being as upright as possible. Walk the palms in as much as possible before lowering the elbows down. I did just that and I found my heels! And then I slowly lowered the elbows and they fully touched down onto the mat! Comparing to when I first got into a kapotasana, it is a major improvement. Back then my fingers just grazed over my toes and my elbows couldn’t fully touch down either. It’s funny how I thought that was good enough.

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I also could never come out of the pose the proper way. I just sank down and rolled out of it, and each time my back felt something. But now, with strong legs I could rise up the way I got in (like picture above) and there’s no strain.

I first got into Kapotasana in May 2016.

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