I’ve never been a natural backbender. I understand I have a flexible back compared to most people, but put me in a group of advanced yogis and my jaw still drops upon witnessing the agility of the spine. Backbends have always frustrated me because I’ve felt limited. I focus on my alignment, works my cues, and give it my best, yet always find that I end up hitting a wall no matter how hard I try. The beauty of “hollow back,” a variation on Pincha Mayurasana, is its potential—I feel limitless. This backbend allows me to isolate my upper chest, protect my lower back, and feel what it’s like to keep moving forward. It’s a glorious feeling! It’s become not only my favorite backbend but potentially my favorite pose. I hope you’ll feel the same way!
Like any inversion, it’s best to start practicing this pose learning against a wall. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the soles of your feet flat against the wall. Your legs should be straight with the thighs pressing down. Let your hands press into the ground where they naturally fall (directly next to your hips), and then, pressing down through your palms, lift your hips and step both feet BACK so that they are now behind your hands. The goal here is to be able to lower your forearms down while keeping the palms in the same spot—this will ensure that your feet touch the wall when you kick up. Your forearms should be parallel to each other and shoulder-width apart. If you feel extremely nervous you can have a teacher spot you or cozy in just a bit closer to the wall. If you have a tendency to splay in your elbows you might consider interlacing your fingers like in Tripod Headstand instead of keeping the forearms parallel (elbows will still be shoulder-width apart).
Come into Dolphin Pose on your forearms. Keep your shoulders stacking over your elbows as you walk your feet in. Lift one leg up and gently kick up into Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand) allowing your top leg to come to the wall. Keep the wall leg straight (or as straight as it will go) and let your other leg bend with the knee facing the center of the room. Immediately hug your upper outer arms in to release through the base of your neck. Keep your elbows firming into the ground to draw energy up into your shoulder sockets. Instead of looking forward like you traditionally would, begin to let your head drop neutrally. This part takes time and confidence. It may just begin with looking slightly back.
Once you build confidence with dropping your head, let it go completely neutral. Your gaze will now be in the center of the room. Firmly press the foot into the wall. If you need to wiggle it down a bit that will help you deepen the backbend. If you feel too far out at this point, kick out and readjust so that your fingers are slightly closer to the wall. Otherwise, give your upper outer arms an extra squeeze in to protect the upper back and start to pull your head through your arms. The idea is to eventually clear your arms with your ears. Your chest will follow suit; pull your heart toward the middle of the room. Keep pulling the center through as you firm the upper arms in and root through your elbows. As for the leg reaching into the center of the room, the tendency is to keep it high, so you’ll need to engage the hip flexors in order for it to drop into the split.
Kicking up into this pose in the middle of the room takes time. The first part of the goal (and reaching this may take weeks, months, or years) is to learn how to balance Forearm Stand with a neutral neck. It’s much easier to neutralize your neck when you bring one knee into a bent position (check out the Shape in step 2 with the wall leg slightly higher up). When you bring one leg closer to your center of gravity, it makes it easier to balance. This will enable you to slowly lower your head, let your gaze fall toward the middle of the room, and neutralize your neck. Once this balance feels normal you can add the backbend. Always re-firm the outer upper arms. The action of hollow back can cause the arms to splay, so we need to make the effort to firm them in before we add the action. Once the arms are solid, pull your head through toward the center of the room along with your chest. I have the legs picture in the splits above, but the shape of your legs is entirely up to you. The splits can be useful as it creates a nice counter balance to everything going on. Continue to drop the leg closest to your chest downward as it has a tendency to float up (you’ll see mine isn’t parallel to the ground. I’m still working on that!).
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and author of Rodale’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga . Follow her on Twitter; Facebook;Instagram or on her website. Come on retreat with her in Stowe, Vermont this October for yoga, archery + outdoor beauty via The Travel Yogi.