full moon 1Here comes the radiant morning light, like a magician pulling the universe out of its hat…

My weekly practice has a general rhythm that I’ve developed over the years. It’s a dynamic, evolving process, but currently, a typical week goes like this:

Monday– Basics, meaning some combination of the core poses i.e., sun salutations, standing poses and inversions
Tuesday — Backbends
Wednesday — Twists and/or arm balances
Thursday — Forward bends and hip openers
Friday — Wild card day. I often attend a class on Friday, in which case the only practice I do on my own is some pranayama and/or meditation. If I don’t get to class, I’ll practice whatever I feel I need most, anything from restoratives to more backbends to an ashtanga-vinyasa style practice, to balance out my practice week.

Mostly I don’t practice at all on the weekend; I take a walk and visit my neighborhood farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, and I teach on Sunday mornings. But, if I skipped a day during the week, occasionally I’ll do a weekend afternoon practice to make up for it… and if I’m feeling the need for a restorative practice, I might find a weekend time for that. But a weekend practice is a “bonus” practice — I don’t hold myself to any practice commitments on the weekend, and even if I’ve planned on one, I can easily let go of it if something else comes along.

This weekly rhythm makes sense to me on an energetic level. It’s all about creating balance; I move my body and energy from yang to yin, priming my spine and my joints with a basic practice, opening fully in backbends, neutralizing with twists or perhaps arm balances, and coming back into myself with the deeply internal experience of forward bends. This general “schedule” works well for me, and it eliminates the “what should I do? question, But, I don’t always stick to the plan. There are many reasons I might diverge from it during the week: I don’t have enough time or energy for backbends when I get up on a Tuesday morning, or, conversely, I wake up early some morning and decide to take advantage of the extra time to do a deeper, more involved practice. I get my period, which changes the practice options significantly for a few days (a topic that I’ll explore in detail at some future time). And sometimes I just don’t feel like doing whatever was on the menu for a particular day when I actually step onto my mat.

One thing that often inspires me to vary my routine is a full moon. I’m vaguely aware of a yoga tradition around the new and full moons; orthodox ashtangis don’t practice at all on these days of the month. But for me, mostly I just like the idea of practicing moon salutations on full moon days. And this day, the full moon happened to coincide with the fall equinox, which seemed kind of magical. Twice a year on equinox days, when the day and the night are of equal length, I make a point of practicing both sun and moon salutations, as a way of honoring the beginning of the new season. But with the spectacular harvest moon still looming large in the sky outside my window when I got up to practice, I chose to go straight to moon salutations and then into backbends as my theme of the day. Here’s what it looked like:

Practice sequence:

reclined constructive rest position/breathing awareness
chandra namaskar/moon salutations, about 6 sets
viparita virabhadrasna, ardha chandrasana/parsvakonasana/reverse warrior, half moon pose, side angle pose (right from one into another)
prasarita padottonasana/wide feet standing forward bend
virabhadrasana 1/warrior 1 (long hold, about 2 minutes per side)
adho muka svanasana/downward dog pose (1 minute)
child’s pose (1 minute)
virasana/seated hero + gomukhasana/cow face shoulder stretch
ustrasana/camel pose
dhanurasana/bow pose
parsva dhanurasana/sideways bow
bhekasana/frog pose
viparita dandasana/reverse staff backbend
viparita dandasansa to urdvha dhanurasana/repeat reverse staff then move into upward facing bow (aka full backbend)
urdvha dhanurasana/upward bow backbend, 3 more times
raja kapotasana/king pigeon pose
bhujangasana/cobra pose
adho mukha svanasana/downward facing dog
adho mukha eka pada raja kapotasana/pigeon lunge
gomukhasana/cow face (legs only this time, bending forward)
agnistambhasana/fire log pose
parivrtta agnistambasana/fire logs w/ twisting variations
paschimottanasana/stretch for the west side of the body/full seated forward bend
reclined twist (I’m partial to the one where your legs are crossed in sort of an eagle position)
sukha yoginidrasana/gentle sleeping yoga prep (aka happy baby pose)
savasana/corpse or relaxation – 10 minutes
pranayama — ujayii & kumbkha breath, 5 minutes
meditation — 5 minutes

Not Enough Time For This Practice?

Try this 30 minute version: A few moon salutations, sit in virasana for some shoulder stretches, then one medium backbend — either dhanurasana or ustrasana — followed by child’s pose, pigeon lunge, and any twist, seated and/or reclined. Either savasana or straight into meditation to finish.

Notes & How It Went

Practicing moon salutations at dawn on the morning of a full moon is a blissful experience, how could it not be? I tend to wake up as dawn breaks and it usually takes me about 30 to 45 minutes to have a cup of tea and get organized to practice. I’m working on shortening this time, but for now, those mornings when I’m up before dawn are very special. giving me both a longer time to practice and the sense of peacefulness that comes with being up before the world outside is active. I also have a view of Oakland’s Lake Merritt from my window, and seeing the reflection of the first morning light hitting the lake is always wonderful; when I’m practicing, moving in tune with my breath and feeling connected to something larger than my individual self through yoga, it’s extra special, as if I’m part of that light and it is part of me. If only we could stay that connected when we move off of the mat and into our daly life, right? Well, that’s always the hope.

Moon salutations are a wonderful preparation for a backbend practice, especially a lighter kind of backbending as I did here. A more in-depth backbend practice in which I work into the more advanced backbends can take me two hours or more, and I don’t regularly have that kind of time these days. This practice took me about an hour and a half, and, with the moon salutations and a few straightforward shoulder openers, my hip flexors and front body were open enough to start moving into deeper extension; I got comfortably to the core intermediate backbends, viparita dandasana and urdvha dhanurasana, and then made one attempt at a deeper backbend, raja kapotasana, using blocks under my hands and a strap around my shins to draw my legs closer. I’ve been working on this pose a long time, and in that time, I’ve met quite a few four-year-olds who can do it without even trying. Humbling. As is, very often, my attempt. I notice that there’s a beautiful picture of this pose in the Yoga Journal calendar this month; mine does not look like that. But I think I might one day be able move all the way into it if I keep practicing, so I sometimes throw it in, even on days like today when I’m not warmed up to maximum capacity because, who knows? I stick my hair in a bun to decrease the distance between my feet and the top of my head, and occasionally I do manage to feel my toes brush against my hair. Fun! But not this day, so I move on.

Why bother? In fact, why backbends at all? They are formidable, and they take so much effort to warm up for and get into that they can make for an exhausting practice, and certainly, usually, a very challenging one. But they are also energizing and uplifting, they create so much opening, free up space for fuller breath and make for a freer flow of energy through the spine. This may sound like some kind of new-agey hokum, but in fact, it’s a place where the art of yoga intersects with real scientific evidence. As you stretch out the muscles that surround and support the lungs, those muscles move more freely, so the lungs expand more easily. Of course we all know how nature reacts to a vacuum; the breath naturally flows in to fill up this more open space, giving you access to more of your body’s natural breath capacity. Fuller breath equals your whole system receiving more oxygen, which creates more energy. And that’s one of the major, and very simple, concrete reasons that we feel better after yoga practice, and why backbends in particular are prescribed to combat low energy and even depression.

Backbends can be such a satisfying experience, taking me all the way to the maximum of my physical limits, and putting me in touch with a playful, youthful energy, reminiscent of a time when doing crabwalk” races — walking on all fours upside down in backbend positions– on the lawn with my sister was just for fun. I’m invariably energized after a backbend practice once I’ve gotten through it, and the energy freed up can help carry me through a long day. I’ve learned not to do them too late in the day — a lesson I might have learned from yoga books and teachers if I’d paid attention, but instead discovered on my own — so that energy doesn’t interfere with sleep. And no matter what time of day, a thorough cool down is essential following backbends, since leaving the mat with a hyper-extended spine can cause real problems.

As flexible as my spine is, I’m very careful never to push, and only to move as far as feels good, so I’m a big believer in lots of warmups, gradual opening, and respecting my limits as I experience them on any particular day. I’ll often reach a point in backbends where I sense “I’m done,” and when I hit that point, I start moving into counter poses and cooling down. This is a good place to make a distinction between “counter-poses” and “cool down” poses. There is generally some overlap between these two categories in any practice, but they are not synonymous terms. Counter-poses are designed to bring your body back to neutral after you’ve moved deeply in one direction, while cool downs move into gravity instead of away from it, and prepare the body and the mind for savasana.

The counter pose/cool down portion of this sequence is very effective for me after backbends. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that I like to get that fire log hip stretch series in as a counter pose following backbends; my hip rotators are tighter than my hamstrings, and although I’m working on changing this, they tend to contract very strongly and overwork to bring me up and hold me in backbending postures. If I don’t stretch them out again, they continue, out of long habit, to tighten throughout the day. If you tend toward the opposite — more natural external rotation and tighter hamstrings — it’s probably your hamstrings that need more care and attention with your counter poses.

I subscribe to the Iyengar guideline that it’s not good for the body to move rapidly from one extreme to the other, so notice the gradual process of the counterposes: Cobra was the first backbend of the sequence (repeated many times in chandra namaskar); after my deepest backbend, I came back to it, moving back toward neutral with a gentler spinal extension. Then downward dog as a neutralizing pose, and gradually moving into flexion with pigeon lunge before some seated forward bends. No going from urdvha dhanurasana straight into paschimottanasana for me. Although this can be done without detriment by some people if it is practiced intelligently and mindfully, I find a less extreme approach much easier on my body. Although that particular combination is a standard part of Astanga sequencing, it’s a disaster for the average adult back. Especially for tight hamstring people, child’s pose is a much safer choice. So, as they say in Iyengar circles, I take my spine through all the gears, and don’t jam from highest to lowest with no transition.

Finally, backbends are often described as heart opening, and because they do open the chest, they are also lung openers. So I always hope to have some time for pranayama at the end of a backbend practice. Backbends can rev you up, especially someone like me who tends toward a more pitta, fiery temperament. That’s why I’ve cut down on my backbend practices, doing them once or at most twice a week instead of regularly two to three times. On backbend days, pranayama is centering, and brings me back to sense of peace and mindfulness. And the experience of drinking in the breath with fully opened lungs is delicious.

The sun was high in the sky and the moon long gone by the time I finished, and I was also bright and clear and ready to go.

rajakapotasana