ashtanga yoga, five years in: state of the backbend

Q: What does five years of Ashtanga Primary, home practice only, do to one middle-aged woman’s spine?

I’ve done some previous State of the Backbend posts (2011, 2012, 2013) so some of these photos have shown up on the blog before.  But I haven’t done one in a while. Today’s post is the year five installment.

A bit of backstory to catch-up any newcomers:  I started Ashtanga in the summer of 2009 when I was 38.  I started because I got a sore throat and found that I couldn’t gargle because I couldn’t tip my head back far enough.   This totally freaked me out.  I couldn’t look at the ceiling?  Seriously?!  Thus the yoga.  The fact that I ended up doing Ashtanga was a bit of random hit—Primary was a routine when my biggest question when I got onto my new mat was “what do I do?”  Ashtanga offered an answer.

In 2009 I had zero backwards mobility in my spine.  For example, I couldn’t do an Up Dog—I had to do this kind of baby cobra instead.  Just lying flat on my back on the floor felt like a backbend.  Maybe this was the result of years of nursing, all curled forward, holding my babies.  My spine felt like cement.

But listen, this isn’t a miracle story, okay?  I have not made kapotasana my bitch.  Temper your expectations.  Never the less, in my gentle, no-adjustments, no-shala, no teacher, kind of way, progress has been made.

Let’s take a look.  This first shot is after one year of practice.  I could look up at the ceiling!  Yay!

hangback July 2010July 2010

Six months later….

hangback Jan 2011Jan 2011

Three months after that…


April 2011

Four more months… A watched pot doesn’t boil very fast, does it?

hangback Aug 2012Aug 2012

But still, from the start, that’s some steady progress, yes?

However, six months jump again…and it stalls.  The next one is less bend, but I was trying to get more upper-back bend and less lower-back cranking.  More arch, less fold-at-the-lumbar.  If you look at the 2012 pic, my upper back is still rounded forward quite a bit.  In the 2013 pic, I was trying for more upper back curve.

hangback Feb 2013Feb 2013

And then, for a long time, nothing seemed to change.  I didn’t take any pictures because shifts of millimeters just don’t show up in a photo, and it was depressing.

But, finally, yesterday, a year and half since that last photo, here I am:

hangback July 2014 July 2014

 Hey!  Some progress!  Not only can I see the ceiling, I can see the wall behind me now, haha.  So that’s something.

Okay, now Urdhva Dhanurasana.

When I first started trying UD, I couldn’t do it at all.  So I would stretch out over an exercise ball.  This was the first day I could put my hands on the floor, eight months into practice.

backbend April 2010April 2010

Those first attempts were really terrible….and uncomfortable!  My arms are bent at near right angles!  And so are my knees.  It’s a mess.

backbend May 2010

May 2010

But slowly my arms straightened out a bit.  Three months later:

backbend Aug 2011August 2011

Six months later….

backbend feb 2012Feb 2012

My hands are still way in front of my face, but it’s looking more like a UD now.  This next one is after nearly three years of practice.

backbend June 2012June 2012

I could hold them a bit longer at this point.  Meaning, from five desperate seconds (ha!) to maybe 10, slightly less panicked, seconds.

backbend feb 2013Feb 2013

And then…very little change.  For a long time.  Those early days when change happens so fast—it’s so motivating!  Long periods of mostly-the-same, man, those are harder.  (And hey, what’s with that baggy shirt?  Ugh.)

But here I am yesterday:

backbend July 2014July 2014

Not bad! Seeing this picture, I realized, hey, there has been some movement.  My hands are nearly under my head now, not out in front of my face the way they were last year.  My legs are quite a bit straighter.  And the arch is more evenly distributed, with my butt closer to half way between my feet and hands, instead of crunched over on the foot side.  So that’s good.

On the other hand, I haven’t gotten nearly as far as I fantasized I would after five freaking years.  Maybe it’s being 43 now, maybe its because I’m on my own, no teacher.  I wanted to be omnipotent by now!

But hey, barring that, I’m relieved that I wasn’t just treading water the last eighteen months.

Slow—very slow, perhaps—but I’m a far cry from where I started.   Millimeter by millimeter, the body opens up.  The tortoise wins the race.

And hey, if I make no further progress, but stay right here for the next twenty years…that would be a fine backbend for a 63 year old.

(But I might get a little more bend out of my spine, yet.)

Finally, it wouldn’t be a backbend post without a shot of my gorgeous and bendy photographer, Sophie, 10, who popped into this backbend cold, just for fun.

sophie backbend 2014

20 thoughts on “ashtanga yoga, five years in: state of the backbend

  1. louise

    Good Morning from London, WOW! middle aged me and the Mr just looked at all your images after a standing only practice and we are both so inspired. He just went to have a bath muttering something about I’m going to be a yogi, I’m going to keep doing it. So thank you. It’s like positive nagging. And not from me. 😉
    It’s a brilliant journey and so good to see the transitions. Thanks for being diligent enough to keep taking pics, it’s motivational for the rest of us trailing up the path behind you. Millimetre by millimetre in the right direction {*}

    1. maya Post author

      Hi there, wow back at you, thanks so much! I dont’ know about “brilliant,” feels more like plodding along. I’m glad the post useful to you–there have certainly been many internet inspirations that I’ve drawn from over the years to help me keep going and there continue to be. Kind of amazing to think I might be that for someone else. Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Michelle

    The progress photos are amazing…. sort of like a flip book! Funny that gargling was a trigger for your practice. Mine was knee injury/surgery. Keep it going…. drop backs may be in your future! Home practice requires such will power… I live a few blocks from a great shala and know I would not practice as much if I were solo. Your dedication shows in the progress. It many seem slow from your end, but how long did you “work” at getting your back like “cement”? 5 years is a blink of the eye! Cheers!

    1. maya Post author

      Thanks so much, Michelle. I don’t know about the drop backs. There is this SHEER FREAKING TERROR that I’d have to get through first. Living a few blocks from a great shala must be amazing! Envy.

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    1. Lizz

      Thanks for posting these. Seeing your progress in this, and the previous post, was just what I needed today after a morning practice in which I kept thinking, during the sitting postures, “impossible.” Namaste.

  5. Rose

    Such inspiring photos. I am a beginner and feel like my flexibility will never improve but you show that it is possible! Must keep going…

    1. maya Post author

      Hello Lizz and Rose, thanks for stopping by. Glad to be of help! If I can get more flexible in my forties, anyone can. 🙂

  6. Nancy

    Maya, just found your photos as I searched for progress with yoga pictures. Iam one year into yoga and 48 years old. I push a little more than I should but I enjoy it so much. Both you and your daughter’s pictures are very inspiring. I wish I had taken some pics when I started( crow,camel)… Still practicing daily!

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Nancy, nice to meet you! Congratulations of your one year in. Take pictures now, you’ll be glad in two more years when it’s three years in. Best wishes! 🙂

  7. nish

    I’m curious we’ve seen your physical imporvment, what would say was the nonphysical benefits, have you noticed any benefits in the emotion or mental areas etc

    1. maya Post author

      Hmmm. Hard to compare since I don’t know what I would be like if I didn’t do yoga. But I’d probably have to say, nope, I haven’t noticed very much of a difference. No inner peace, no poise, no calm center of the storm. Maybe I’m a little less grumpy because my back doesn’t hurt. And yoga is a pleasurable part of my day, so it’s got to help me be nicer just on account of me having more pleasure in my day. But yeah, my mental fluctuations are just as fluctuating as always. No nirodha of my citta as far as I can see. Heck, maybe I’m doing it wrong. 🙂

  8. carey

    Just stumbled across your site after looking for yoga inspiration online, being at the beginning stage of my practice. Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Mei

    Dear Maya, thanks for the post. Love those pictures! I just started astanga a little like how you stumbled upon it. I am hoping yoga can be a miracle to my deteriorating lower back. First weeks have been promising but I kept wondering in every class how I am EVER get into any of those poses! I can’t do many of them… No lotus, no back band, not a proper vinyasa. Your sharing has encouraged me tremendously. Thank you!

  10. Barbara

    What an inspirational journey of yoga. I have just began practicing at the age of 39, I have only been doing yoga for two months and feel inspired to continue on. Thank you for posting.

  11. Ellie

    I have just stumbled across this post having dropped into a depression because my backbend is the same as your first photos after two years of pretty regular practice, it is soooooo disheartening and I could actually cry having taken a “progress” photo today and seeing that I have made ZERO progress…..
    Amazing you kept going . I really hope that next year is my year for back ends
    ,namaste, Ellie

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Ellie,
      Two things. First, don’t get depressed about a backbend! If you are doing the backbend that your back can do, it is just as intense and perfect as someone else doing the backbend their back can do. One isn’t better than the other. Further isn’t better. I really, seriously believe that. Just gently bend back the amount that feels good to your back today, and that’s enough. Asana Ambition is really a troublemaker, look how it is making you feel bad! Yoga isn’t for making you feel bad, it’s for making you feel good. So let it go.
      Second, I got a lot of mileage out of alternate backbending paths. A straight up urdhva dhanurasana is really hard for me, the strength, but also this panic I get. I find backbends the other way, i.e. lying on my belly and lifting up and back into up dog, or raja kapotasana, without dropping my head back too much, don’t trigger the panic and so I can stay in them more comfortably and for longer. Along the same lines, supported, passive backbends, like lying over a big exercise ball or on a heart block helps, not with the strength part, obviously, but with opening the tissue over long stays (several minutes, even ten) with pleasure instead of struggle. I stay in up dog for four or five breaths during most vinyasa, often pop a rajakapotasana into the seated sequence somewhere, and often lay on a ball for five minutes instead of full UD, maybe lifting up on hands and feet off the ball a few times. This gives me much of the benifits of UD without the struggle and panic, and let me enjoy my practice. Most importantly, I suggest you DO NOT PUSH AND SHOVE YOURSELF INTO A POSE because you will injure yourself. And then you can’t practice at all. Good luck! Maya

  12. sal

    I’ve decided this, my second year of daily home yoga practice, will be the year of the backbend. Which I have thus far avoided since they reduce me to a tight, breathless, stiffly panicking mess. I feel like my heart might explode. So I’ve been trying to read up and educate myself about it – who knew there was so much information about how common the fear is, and what causes it.
    Have you come across this?

    anyways, well done on your journey. Keep practicing!


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