In this article, I continue my series on the many myths that have been codified around the Ashtanga practice. Specifically, I’m going to take a look at whether to start dropbacks before second series. If you’ve taken my workshops or read many of my articles you know that I’m all about tailoring my recommendations to students to each person’s specific body and circumstances. I’m also a big proponent of asking “why” when someone asks my thoughts on some of the general guidelines for Ashtanga yoga practice.
Of course, we need some kind of framework to practice within. If we’re too vague, it’s not Ashtanga yoga anymore. But the opposite also happens. Some kind of suggestion is given to a student and through years of it being passed along, often without the context that led to the original suggestion, it gets reified into a “rule.” It becomes an idea about the “right way” to practice Ashtanga yoga. Whenever I encounter those ideas about the way we “should” practice, I ask questions. I want to know, what is that recommendation doing? What is its intention? Based on that intention, who is it for and when?
So with those questions in mind, let’s explore an idea that’s floating around out there that Ashtanga yoga practitioners should be doing dropbacks before they begin working on postures in the second series.
What are dropbacks?
For those who are unfamiliar with the dropbacks move, what I’m referring to is the sequence of dropping backward into urdhva dhanurasana from a standing position, then immediately returning back to a standing position. This sequence is often added as part of the closing sequence in the Ashtanga vinyasa practice after pressing up into three rounds of urdhva dhanurasana from the floor.
Where did dropbacks come from?
Where did this idea of doing dropbacks before beginning the second series come from? Dropbacks were not in the earliest finishing sequence that Pattabhi Jois taught after primary series. In fact, backbends weren’t included in Yoga Mala at all! So my best guess, based on conversations with folks who practiced in Mysore before I did, is that dropbacks were added as an option when young athletic Westerners arrived in Mysore. Pattabhi Jois was younger and had fun giving them new challenges. Sometime after that, dropbacks evolved into something you had to do after primary series instead of something some people could do.
Why do dropbacks at all?
So why might we want to do dropbacks? There are good reasons why many students might want to work on dropbacks. They’re a challenging sequence of movements. Some students enjoy the puzzle of figuring out how to access this new series of movements in their body. Dropbacks can feel empowering. They can build self-confidence when students achieve something they thought they’d never be able to do. Dropbacks are an opportunity to challenge yourself to mess with your own nervous system since we are NOT designed to fall backward. That means it takes extra mental effort to overcome the normal natural fear that kicks in. And, they can be just plain fun.
What actions do dropbacks consist of when we break the full complex moves down into their more basic parts? A very simplified description of dropbacks is just a transition into and out of a full wheel/urdhva dhanurasana pose. But how we arrive in that full wheel matters. We use the body differently to drop into it from standing than we do when we push up into it from the floor.
When we drop into that shape from standing a lot happens very quickly. While we are actually “doing” movement, our hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris) are eccentrically contracting, the other quadriceps are eccentrically controlling knee movement, and tibialis anterior (and some other foot and ankle muscles) are helping control movement at the front of the ankle. At some point, we hit the end of what we can do with contractile tension in the muscles and it’s the elastic tension in the shape that carries us the rest of the way to the floor. So, not only does the front line of our body (hip flexors, all quadriceps, muscles on the front of the ankle, etc.) need to be open, there also needs to be some strength there.
But, I often see people overemphasize how much strength they actually need here. It’s really much less than you probably think. There needs to be enough strength to resist falling too fast, but not so much that your knees don’t bend. Finally, we have to be aware enough as we’re approaching the floor to land, to keep our arms mostly straight. If we get too overwhelmed by the action of going backward and allow our elbows to bend, we’ll hit our head.
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When it makes sense to do dropbacks
All of that anatomy of dropbacks I discuss above can help us keep in perspective that this is a complicated series of movements. And, when we do them, those movements interact with our nervous system instincts! So, with that in mind, when does it actually make sense to dive into all that complexity in your practice? In my mind, students are ready to work on dropbacks when they have a reasonably open backbend/full wheel. That’s a necessary minimum. Because of the tricky nature of the dropbacks sequence, I also think it’s important for students who are going to work on dropbacks to have a pretty consistent practice, be comfortable enough in their body that the fear of going backward won’t overwhelm them, and be able to breathe fairly well in difficult, but less complex postures.
When to start
Notice none of the information above mentioned anything about which sequence someone is practicing. Those pieces might all come together early-ish in someone’s experience of primary series (especially if they arrive at yoga with a previous background in dance or gymnastics). Alternatively, those pieces might come together when someone is working farther into primary series, sometime while working on the intermediate series, or never. And all of those are okay.
Whether a student is ready to work on dropbacks before second series often has more to do with their body type naturally bending more easily in the backbending direction. There is very little backbending in the primary series. So the poses themselves aren’t doing that much to prepare students for the deep backbending of urdhva dhanurasana or the dynamic backbending of dropbacks.
If students have moved very quickly through the primary series because the primary series asanas have been easy for them, giving them dropbacks to work on before suggesting they begin second series does act as a hurdle. It can give them something to do for a bit while giving their body time to more fully integrate the primary series actions before adding more poses. But, I definitely don’t think completing dropbacks is necessary before starting students on the intermediate series.
When dropbacks don’t make sense
Dropbacks just don’t make sense to me if a student can’t yet do a fairly comfortable and steady full wheel. If the pose that we’re transitioning into and out of isn’t happening, why would it make sense to try to build a complicated way to get in and out of the pose? In that case, I’d work with students to evolve their backbend. I often give students a series of preparation poses to help them open their hip flexors which are usually the biggest restrictors to backbending comfortably.
And in some cases, yes, I’d support students in beginning the postures of the intermediate series which includes many accessible backbending poses and can help evolve a student’s urdhva dhanurasana. Finally, there are also situations where a student has an injury or issue that makes dropbacks contraindicated, like spinal fusions, other previous surgeries, etc. I always go case by case. In some situations, I might recommend someone never work with dropbacks at all or I might recommend they only do assisted dropbacks.