by Charlotte Bell
“Bridge pose” is especially needed in the month whose name means “purification.”
The Romans had detox in mind when they added February to their calendar in about 700 BCE. The Latin februum means “purification.” February is named after the Roman purification ritual that took place each year on February 15th. “Purification, refinement, surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga,” wrote Patanjali in “Yoga Sutras.” Purification is central to the yogic path.
The Romans had detox in mind when they added February to their calendar in about 700 BCE. The Latin februum means “purification.” February is named after the Roman purification ritual that took place each year on February 15th.
“Purification, refinement, surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga,” wrote Patanjali in “Yoga Sutras.” Purification is central to the yogic path.
The skin is the body’s largest eliminative organ, and sweating naturally detoxifies your tissues. But hatha yoga’s methods are less about perspiration than about restoration.
Over the millennia, hatha yoga has developed many purification tools, including breathing practices and neti nasal washing. Paired with certain asanas these methods are powerful ways of releasing toxins.
One of yoga’s most powerful purifying poses that combats the respiratory distress of breathing noxious air is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, also known as “Bridge Pose.”
Bridge Pose, or Setu Bandha, soaks the lymph glands in the neck and throat with blood. It also suppresses the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) side of your autonomic nervous system, restoring energy and supporting healing. (When your head is below your heart and your neck is flexed, the “baro reflex” is activated. This sets off a chain of events that suppresses the sympathetic nervous system.)
Setu Bandha can be practiced either actively or passively. The active version generates energy through spinal extension. The passive version restores energy by allowing the practitioner to receive the benefits of backbending without spending energy.
Both versions expand the front body, helping dispel the effects of daily forward bending over computers, counters and steering wheels. They also stretch the back of the neck and strengthen legs and hips. (Note: It is best not to practice this pose during menstrual period.)
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet resting on the floor. Lengthen your arms alongside your torso and turn your palms up. Take time to let your body and breath settle. Feel the contact points between your back and the floor softening and expanding as you breathe. Feel the breath moving your ribcage, abdomen and pelvis. Relax here for several breaths, enjoying the support of the floor beneath you.
When you feel completely relaxed, turn your palms down and press your feet and arms into the floor, rolling the entire spine up off the floor, lifting the buttocks so that your back is arched. Clasp your hands underneath you and rock side to side on your shoulders until you come to rest on the tops of your shoulders. Now press your arms into the floor and allow your chest to expand toward your chin. Simultaneously, lengthen your throat to move your chin away from your chest. Take care not to allow your legs to splay out wider than hip width; keep your thighs parallel. Be aware of how the weight is distributed across your feet, making sure that the weight is equal on these four points: inside and outside balls of your feet, and insides and outsides of your heels. Ground your arms and feet, letting the rest of the body rise up. Take five to 10 deep breaths.
When you are ready to let the pose go, release the clasp of your hands and extend your arms out, overhead along the floor. Stretch through your arms as you lower your spine slowly to the floor, one vertebra at a time. Simultaneously stretch out through your tailbone so that your spine lengthens as it lowers. Here you can return your arms to your sides or allow them to continue extending overhead. Relax and check in with your body/mind. What has changed since you first lay down on the floor? Repeat the entire process at least two more times. This is active Bridge.
To practice passive Bridge, follow the above instructions to move into the pose. Once your spine and hips are off the ground, place a block either upright (as shown) or on its side (so that it’s lower) under your pelvis. Clasp your hands under you as in the active version, or allow your arms to rest on the floor beside your body with your palms facing up. Breathe slowly and restfully; relax completely. Do nothing. Stay as long as you like—10 minutes or more. When you are ready to release the pose, lift your hips slightly, remove the block, and follow the instructions in the previous paragraph to return to lying down. You may want to draw your knees gently toward your chest and breathe into your back body.
Weave Setu Bandha into your regular yoga practice, or practice it on its own. Practice it for purification, restoration of energy, or because it feels good. Its heart-expanding properties will prepare you for other of February’s iconic days. u
Charlotte Bell is the author of “Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life.” http://www.charlottebellyoga.com