Fitness Magazine

Are Backbends Stimulating Or Relaxing?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Are Backbends Stimulating or Relaxing?

Margann Green, Age 77

Did anyone besides me notice that in his post Yoga Practices to Optimize Vagal Tone, Ram said included both backbends and flow sequences as asanas that trigger the Relaxation Response? 
Before I published that article, I queried him about that. Because both from my own person experience and from what I’ve learned from various teachers, I’ve always believed that backbends and flow sequences, especially done rapidly, were actually highly stimulating, even causing insomnia in people who practice them in evening classes (see Yoga and Your Emotions). And I always considered those two types of asana as something to avoid when I was feeling highly anxious, and when I’m not, I always finish a sequence that includes those poses with some nice long calming poses and practices to balance myself. 
But Ram, it turned out, had a very different perspective on this issue, and that led us to have a very interesting little email discussion about this topic. In the end, I decided that it would be a good idea to share the exchange with you. This will not only allow you to see a bit of what our blog is like “behind the scenes,” but you may also wish to join in the discussion by adding your own comments.  
Nina: I’m confused by the following statement. "All of the above sequences have a quieting effect on the nervous system, encouraging a shift from Fight or Flight mode to Rest and Digest mode- hallmark of an optimally functioning vagus nerve.” This doesn’t really apply to all the poses and sequences you mentioned, right? Can I say EXCEPT flow sequences, standing poses, and active backbends?
Ram: Reg your query, all the sequences I mentioned (flow, active backbends and inversions), optimizes the vagal tone, switch on the parasympathetic nervous system and move the individual to a Rest and Digest mode. Let me know if I need to change it again to make it more clear.  
Nina: Well, I really wonder about that. It seems like some challenging poses, such as backbends, etc. and maybe flow sequences, are actually stressful and so can trigger Fight or Flight. That’s why people often can’t sleep at night after a backbend or flow class just before bed. At least that is my understanding of how the asana practice isn’t always relaxing.  
Ram: Very interesting opinion, Nina. I guess we can argue about this without reaching a satisfying explanation. 
Yoga (asanas + all the other angas) is a means to achieve enlightenment (knowing one’s true nature, awareness, intuition, clarity etc). Physical and mental stress can cloud the mind and so over the years Yoga was adopted to relieve physical and mental stress. If yoga truly relieves stress, then why should anyone experience stress after doing a yoga pose be it a backbend or sun salutation? I have never ever felt stressed out after doing yoga (even after attempting several challenging poses like in Ashtanga or Bikram); exhaustion yes, but not mental stress. 
In my opinion, the mental stress is not from the yoga poses but it is primarily due to the individual’s own demeanor before going to the mat. I can think of several possible reasons:
  1. The individual continues to harbor disharmonious impressions while doing Yoga
  2. The individual was not able to let go of the emotional turbulence even while doing the asanas
  3. The individual got mentally challenged by the neighbors who were more agile
  4. The individual did not like the particular teacher and was mentally upset
  5. The individual did not appreciate the corrections from the teacher
  6. The individual did not appreciate the neighbors who were sweating or breathing heavily. 
 All the above and others that I cannot think of right now can stress out an individual. So it is not asanas per se but the individual’s outlook and attitude.
I am not sure you will agree, but this has been my experience when teaching in the class. I do not want to put the blame on Yoga, at least not yet.  
Nina: Well, I will leave your post as is. But this is an interesting discussion that we should continue to have. 
I am not alone in my thoughts that some yoga asanas are stimulating rather than relaxing (perhaps “stress” is the wrong word, though I think others would agree with me in that they stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, just as some pranayma practices do). This is especially true for active backbends. (Recently at a class with Vickie Russell Bell, she said she always finishes the backbend section of her nighttime classes with a least a half an hour of relaxation, so people won’t go home and have trouble sleeping.) 
When I first started studying yoga, I had no idea why certain poses like Viparita Karani were so relaxing. But I experienced them as such. Later I learned from Roger Cole about baroreceptors and inversions. Likewise, I (and many others) have experienced backbends as highly stimulating. Many people talk about how they cause insomnia. We don’t have an explanation for this, but isn’t it possible than something physiological is going on that is causing this? For example, flexing the neck quiets the nervous system because of the baroreceptors. What does extending the neck, which we do in most backbends, cause? Or, Rodney Yee's theory was that exposing your vulnerable organs (the opposite of what animals on all fours do) triggers a bit of fear response. Maybe one day there will be a study on this. But for now, I’m sticking with my anecdotal experience and that of several of my teachers.
To me this is not “blaming” yoga; it is just another aspect of the asana practice. I think of the asanas as being developed to “fortify” the body for meditation, pranayma, and other spiritual practices, not to relieve stress. And backbends are an important part of a balanced asana practice to create a strong, healthy body. 
I agree with you, however, that the attitude with one approaches a yoga poses, perhaps one that you fear or dislike, could also contribute to its effects.
Ram did not respond to that message, so I guess he was still not convinced or was just busy with work, as he does have a full-time job after all! Then, yesterday, I was practicing Dhanurasana, and I noticed my heart racing after. It’s hard to breathe in this pose for me, as it is in many backbends. My breath speeds up for sure. Maybe my inhalations are longer. So I was wondering if the stuff Baxter taught me about pranayama and the nervous system (how longer inhalations are stimulating—see Pranayama: A Powerful Key to Your Nervous System) might apply to backbends as well and, likewise, flow, if it is rapid and challenging (like Ashtanga, which I have tried). That’s my latest theory of why backbends, flow sequences and other physically challenging poses do not trigger the Relaxation Response.
But as I told Ram, we can agree to disagree as there is no scientific study of this as far as we both know.
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