Setu = ‘bridge’ or ‘dam’
Bandha = ‘lock’ or ‘bind’
Asana = ‘posture’ or ‘pose’
Backbends are brilliant for counteracting our habits of slouching, collapsing the chest and generally closing ourselves off from the world all day. Having our bodies and hearts open is something which can often be subconsciously a little scary. To open your heart and connect to that space of love, compassion and authenticity may be something you find difficult to do, especially if you’re used to ‘putting your guard up’ and hiding your emotions.
Setu bandhasana strengthens the knees, thighs and ankles, so it’s a great posture for protecting runners’ most vulnerable joints, as well as strengthening the shoulders, gluteus maximus – the second biggest muscle in the body – and the triceps. If you’re working up to urdhva Dhanurasana (full wheel or upward facing bow) then this is the posture to build strength and flexibility of the spinal muscles in. The opening in the front of the body stimulates the abdominal organs and opens up the chest and lungs, helping to release tightness around the muscles which aid in the ability to breathe fully and deeply.
Preparing the body for setu bandhasana:
Warm up the spine and get some blood flowing around the body with your surya namaskar A, Holding phalakasana a little longer than usual to strengthen the triceps, and bhujangasana to get the sense of easing in to a backbend and opening up the front of the body.
From there, come on to all-fours and lift the left leg and right arm, automatically creating a core strengthening posture. From there, bend the left leg and reach back to hold the ankle or foot with the right hand. Focus not on looking up or tilting the head up – as this is just likely to compress the back of the neck – instead the intention is to open the chest and heart space, and to lengthen the quadriceps muscle of the left leg. Tight quads are just one of the things that often holds us back from being able to safely extend in to deeper back bends.
After you’ve repeated the movement to each side of the body – roll on to your back and extend the arms up over the head along the floor. Ensure the shoulderblades are pressing down on to the floor, and make sure you can maintain the natural curve of the neck, so the back of the neck is not on the floor – we don’t want to be placing a lot of pressure upon the tiny bones of the cervical spine!
From here, as you next exhale, firmly ground the feet in to the floor, and as you inhale lift through the hips. Move in and out of this posture a few times co-ordinating with the breath dynamically, to get a sense of the strength it takes in the legs, and the openness of the chest and abdomen. Then you’re all set for your bridge pose….
- From your supine position, take the arms along side the body – palms facing down to the floor.
- Again, ensure the backs of the shoulders are firmly on the floor by shrugging them down and grounding them, and once again maintain that natural curve of the neck away from the floor.
- Press the feet firmly in to the floor – grounding through the heel, little toe and big toe joints of the foot. *There is a tendency for the big toe to lift up off the floor in this posture, so press those big toes down mindfully and keep them there throughout.
- As you exhale, again ground the shoulders and feet down while engaging mula bandha.
- The next inhale – press down firmly in to the feet to lift the hips up. Ensure your knees stay over the ankles as you lift up.
- Stay here for a couple of breaths as you keep the hips level and lifted
- If you want to work on strengthening the upper body – especially the shoulders and triceps – shuffle the shoulderblades together a little and bring the arms underneath you, clasping the hands together firmly. Continue to press the forearms in to the floor, as they’re now forming part of the foundation of your posture. *Notice that the more you squeeze the shoulderblades, you may feel a little lighter in the legs! (And if you don’t feel that? It doesn’t mean you’re doing it ‘wrong’)
- Stay here for 5 to 10 breaths, or longer if you’re comfortable. Continue to lift up through the hips on each inhale, and maybe try one of the variations below while you’re here.
- To transition out of the posture, release the hands apart and slowly roll down through the spine. Slowly that is – so really feel each vertebrae of the spine landing softly back down upon the floor, taking care to move slowly especially through the lumbar spine, as this is an area we often hold rigidly as though it was one ‘block’ of bony structure, instead of five separate regions of bone, fluid and tissue.
- To counterpose, spend a little while in supta Baddha Konasana to open the hips and relieve the legs, and then take a couple of supine twists, which are thought to neutralise the spine before any other posture work.
See if for today – you can resist the urge to curl in to a ball or take a forward fold after this backbend – instead, be with the effects of the asana. Sometimes we find it difficult to be so ‘open’ when we’re used to ‘protecting ourselves’ and closing off from others and the world around us. *This isn’t a particularly deep backbend, and is in fact very healing for those suffering with back pain, but if you really feel as though you need to take a different posture to relieve the effects of setu bandhasana, then please do!
Squeezing a block between the thighs:
Strengthen the adductor muscles of the legs and get a sense of inwardly rotating the thighs to bring extra power to the legs and core. This is also useful in helping to learn what it feels like to have the knees aligned right over the ankles, (which is much healthier for the ligaments surrounding the knees, rather than letting the legs splay out or inwards).
Lifting one leg at a time:
Practice keeping the hips lifted and level as you lift each leg, alternately strengthening each side of the pelvis. Ensure you keep the legs lifted for an even amount of time so as not to create an imbalance in the sacroiliac joints, which are a little vulnerable anyway – especially for those with flexible hips.
Hands at the lower back:
Deepen the backbend and prepare the body for Viparita Karani.
As you expand and open the body with your setu bandhasana, see if you can allow this sense of openness to translate to your actions throughout the day, perhaps being a little more open minded within each situation.