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A.P.P Goes To Mysore: Mysore Backbending aka Catching

Urdhva Dhanurasana is important at Sharath’s shala. Sharath says that catching keeps the spine from getting hunched in old age,  opens Granthis, which are energetic knots in the body, and it raises the Kundalini.  The Granthis keep Kundalini from rising. As Kundalini rises, awareness rises.   For many, it is the only pose that you ever get assisted on.  “Catching” or grabbing the backs of the legs during backbending is something that almost everyone works on. Even if you don’t “catch” someone will help you walk in as far as you can as if you were going to catch. It is rare for someone to not have to attempt to catch. For most in the Shala, it is a requirement.  Sharath said that helping students catch does a number on his back.

Sharath has assistants help him which is an interesting experience. I am not an easy person to work with as far as catching is concerned so bless their little hearts. I am sure it is just as interesting for them as it is for me. There are only three teachers in my 14 years of Yoga who have gotten me to catch. It is a rare event that is usually followed by claps, cheers, and ecstatic yelling by the Yogi’s nearby.

I don’t have a naturally bendy back but I have been practicing for 14 years so my  body has worked up to a decent backbend but it is definitely not worthy of Cirque Du Soliel or maybe even Yoga Journal.  The three people, who can get me to catch, use these three things: time, speed and strength.  I need time to catch my breath and hang back to allow my back to open and my nervous system to chill. I usually don’t get that here. Before I am done doing drop backs, someone is standing on my mat waiting for me to catch. Once I have caught my breath and I am ready to proceed, I need the person to be quick. If they hesitate or move to slow pulling my hands in, I usually loose my legs. Not their problem. It is mine.  However, there is a moment when the person is leaning forward trying to put the hands on the ankles that the weight has a chance to shift and I lose it. If they are fast, this doesn’t happen. I am working on it. I also need someone who is strong. I am not a skinny Minnie and I am still working on finding my legs. If someone is strong AND fast, they can get me caught and then I can push into my feet and find my legs.They also make me do it from the floor in Mysore. I don’t know why. I see other people doing it from the air. I have no clue.  I am used to doing it from the air.

There has been only one person who has gotten me to catch in Mysore. No, it is not Sharath!! Sharath is the person who usually drops me back but no not him. It was a female assistant about my height. I wish I knew her name because she was wonderful and she is not there right now or maybe she has a different assist time. For whatever reason, she knew how to keep me in my legs. It almost felt like I couldn’t move but I could and the backbend would be deep and my hips would be forward. She also grounds me down through my feet by pushing on my hips. Lastly, she talked to me while I did it and gave clear succinct pointers. Maybe it was nothing she did. Maybe her words settled my nervous system enough for the assist to work.

Today, I decided that I was going to back off the backbend and focus on my legs which means that I don’t walk in as much. The person who assisted me didn’t push it which worked out in my favor. Usually, there is a firm command to “walk”, “walk”, “walk”.  So I walk in and touch my ankles like I am being told, but then I loose my legs. Sharath, who can be super funny when he wants to be, says, “ohhh, you make me fall!” or  just “ohhhhhhhh”. Sometimes he says, “straighten your legs!”. Which is funny, because I am trying with all my little heart to do that.  One assistant was like, “how come you don’t straighten your arms and legs?” I wanted to say, “I don’t’ know. You tell me.” I just shrugged instead. One day Sharath used the famous line, “why you fearing?”  I am not afraid of catching.  My backbend routine (for lack of a better word) is actually much shorter here. I usually have to do tic tocs (I can tic), Handstand drop overs, and Scorpion (depending on who I am working with). As long as my back is not sore or my psoas is not balled up like a fist (like it is at this very moment dear God), I don’t feel anything.

Sharath says that you should do a seated forward fold instead of a standing forward fold after backbending. He said that the floor stabilizes the body and it ensures that the hips and legs are equal. We should not squat or bend over between backbends because too much back and forth is bad for the back.  We always get a squish here. A short one. If you hang out too long after the squish is over, you might hear Sharath say, “why you sleeping?” or “no sleeping” or “fast” or “quickly!”

 

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

7 Comments

  • Nika Carlson

    Hey Shanna,

    When I was there last month, Sharath had me catch both ways – a couple of times by walking in and then he’d pick my hands up to my ankles, and eventually always just catching in air. I think once he knew I could do it, he just took me straight there from the air.
    When I was first working toward this with my teacher, she always had me walk in from the floor and then take my hands to my ankles…then eventually just catching from the air. My observation in my body is that the first way, forced me to consistently keep my legs working and able to keep my own balance. I totally get what you mean, it seems easier to just let the momentum help and be pulled straight in quickly. I think there is so much value in the first way, because it focuses on the journey rather than the destination of your ankles, and helps us work toward getting there on our own. The walking in also gives you more time to find that open space gradually.

    I wish I didn’t have to leave at the end of October, but I love reading about omyour continued time there! Hope Sanskrit class is still fun! 🙂

    -Nika

  • msue

    Wow, I just realized the depths of my beginnerhood. To think that there is an emphasis on back bends at Sharath’s shala is sobering. I’m not yet able to do a backbend lifting from the ground. The idea of doing a real backbend, then catching my ankles too, seems out of reach (both physically and emotionally.) I’ve been following this practice less than two years, and started Ashtanga well after my 60th birthday – not an excuse but perhaps that gives some context. This practice draws me in like no other has ever done, but there is a little voice in my head that constantly asks if I’m on a fool’s mission.

    Shanna, I love your writing and look forward to new posts. Please don’t read my self-doubt as a critique. I always learn from your writing and look forward to learning more.

    • Shanna Small

      I started Ashtanga in my twenties and have been doing it for 14 years and I ask myself the same question LOL!!! It is a good question!

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