Last week, I highlighted the importance of filling yourself up first so that you have the energy to truly care for others. I embraced yoga’s narcissistic appeal because it lures us onto the mat, where we can begin to evolve our relationship to ourselves and to the world. This week, I will teach you how to use asana, the practice of yoga poses, to generate the physical and mental energy to power this transformation.
It’s taken me about a decade of practicing yoga to figure out what we’re really doing on our mats: manipulating our bodies into specific positions to calm the mind. The mind and body respond differently to each pose, challenging us to learn to be OK with the varying energies and discomforts they elicit.
Asana changes how we think and feel. As a result, it holds the power to change our lives. We aren’t just doing poses because they look cool or tighten our abs. The deeper transformation comes from the connection of mind and body.
To explore this connection, try this:
1. Look up to the ceiling and smile for 10 seconds. Notice how it feels to receive the world above and around you. What do you feel?
2. Do it again. At the same time, try to think negatively. What do you notice?
It’s hard as hell to create negative thoughts while looking up and smiling, isn’t it? This is the power of using your physical body to change how you feel mentally. When you feel down energetically, look up to open yourself up. Generate energy with your physical body to shift your mental experience.
The quickest way to use your body to improve your mood via asana is backbends. Backbends are potent because they squeeze the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing adrenaline, a vital hormone for energy and survival. Bigger backbends in yoga such as wheel and handstand are jokingly called “yogi lattes” because of the energy rush they deliver to the mind and body by squeezing the adrenal glands.
I use handstands before I go out to socialize, when I feel somber, or when I need a quick computer break. They open my body and evoke euphoria in my mind, which expand my perspective. This is the magic of backbends.
Mindfully selecting when and how to use them is the key to unlocking their powers. Play with different backbends to feel how they each deliver subtly different physical and energetic experiences. Some are more grounding, while others are more invigorating. Learn to use the right tool for the job depending on the effect you desire.
Handstand and wheel are more energizing and, therefore, more appropriate earlier in the day. If you have trouble sleeping, substitute with more moderate backbends, such as bridge, locust or maybe camel. Restorative bridge pose is more grounding, so it can better suit a nighttime practice.
As with any stimulant in life, too many backbends can exhaust rather than energize us. Chronic exposure to stress in modern life puts our adrenal glands at risk of fatigue, so we must be mindful about how often we call on these glands to boost our energy.
Our minds have a tendency to be afflicted, wanting more of what they like and less of what they don’t like. Some students love backbends and are addicted to the rush they deliver. Others avoid them because the stimulation induces discomfort. My teacher always pries: Who’s driving the bus – you or your habits?
Are you doing a backbend because you desire more energy or because you are addicted to the rush it delivers? If it’s the latter, be honest with yourself about what your mind and body truly need in that moment. Are you avoiding backbends because they are uncomfortable? If so, it’s probably time to start doing them so you can confront and move through your discomfort. Your relationship to specific poses will reveal your mind’s and body’s tendencies. Start watching when and why you do what you do.
Have fun exploring how backbends can change how you feel physically and mentally. Find a class or a workshop with a teacher who understands their energetic effects to learn more.
Nick Palladino-King teaches students and clients how to reduce stress, to increase happiness and to elevate health through yoga, wellness coaching and strength training.