Asana of the Week: Setu Bandhasana
Setu Bandhasana, or bridge pose, is the go-to backbend in your average multi-level vinyasa/power yoga class. It seems to be considered a "beginner's backbend," in that it is generally safe and doable for most people. I am skeptical, however, of this attitude toward Bridge Pose.
Bridge was one of my least favorite asanas for a long time because of neck and shoulder tension, which happens to be a very common issue. Because the full version of this pose demands enough flexibility in the shoulders to press the clasped hands into the floor, I would think this pose would be a challenge for the many people out there with tight necks and shoulders (particularly men and we broad-shouldered ladies). Forcing this pose without adequate shoulder flexibility results in dangerous pressure on the back of the neck. Prolonged practice of Setu Bandhasana with incorrect shoulder placement can damage the cervical spine. Not good. Don't do it. Practice a variation instead.
Unfortunately for me, I was not aware of or willing to practice modifications in the early days of my practice. I saw the picture in the book, and tried to emulate it. Simple! But dangerous. I read the instructions and reminders never to enter the realm of "pain," but I was so out of touch with my body, already suppressing so much pain that I didn't know what pain was. Forcing Setu Bandhasana in my days as a green yogini caused me headaches, neck pain, and a general aversion to backbends. My lack of awareness obstructed me from putting cause and effect together at the time. Eventually, I discovered a modification of Setu Bandhasana which involved bending the elbows and pointing the hands up, palms toward the body, pressing the elbows down into the ground. This version of the pose helped me to find the right action in the shoulders, drawing them down away from the ears and under the body, without over-stretching my tight shoulders or bringing too much weight onto my neck.
Another revelation for me in the practice of Setu Bandhasana was learning the action of inhaling onto the toes, pushing the hips skyward, then exhaling the heels back down. Doing so helps to distribute the bend more evenly along the spine, which tends to bring the bend into the upper back. More bend in the upper back means more opening in the chest, which is the ultimate goal here. Gotta get that heart open.
My favorite version of this pose for ultimate heart-opening goodness is bringing the heels of the palms onto the sacrum, like so:
I like to practice this variation for a few minutes as an alternative to more rigorous backbending (i.e. repeated Urdhva Dhanurasanas). It opens the heart tremendously, eases the work of the lower back, and massages the sacrum while keeping the legs engaged. Warning: a long stay in this position may result in extreme happiness and a generally lovin' feeling.