This question was regarding the practice of the backbends of yoga. Some students have found them to elicit intense feelings, which one of my students once expressed as being "pretty orgasmic". For the more disconcerting student, however, this might be something you don't necessarily want to get messed up with in your practice. I have been practicing backbending yoga for over 10 years now and teaching it for almost the same but this was the first student who had the guts to ask if it was okay. He wanted to know if it was: 1) normal, 2) should he continue, and 3) is he the only one?
A few years ago my teacher who is a backbending champion and one of the only teachers in Mysore, South India, to teach the proper techniques of backbending told me to beware of the power of backbends. For those who are not yet familiar with Yogacharya Venkatesha he set out a unique system in how to learn and practice them. This system has helped thousands of students from all over the world to find their way through the backbending maze. He is not only gifted as a teacher but his abilities are no less then amazing. He became nick-named as Rubber Yogi including earning the title of Yoga Samrat (Emperor of Yoga).
Now the reason he said beware and even instructed me not to practice backbends for one month during one of my visits in Mysore is because of the intensity of the postures. Combined with increased prana (energy) many of the vital chakras become stimulated (in yoga there are 7 located along the spinal cord). One chakra is the genitals and procreation (svadhisthana). It is activated in backbends because the pelvis is constantly being pressed and pushed forward as well as backward. Depending on the capacity of the student the energy can get ``stuck`` there and produce strong sexual feelings.
So, sexual arousal happens, it is normal and you are not alone.
My teacher once spoke about a student who started obsessively practising backbends. Over time their energy field was aroused beyond a ´normal´ range. It was not just sexual activities that became excessive, but they overate, oversleep and overextended themselves in many areas of their life. This caused a lot of harm to their body, mind and nervous system. It also ruined their practice.
From my own personal experience I can say backbends are so energizing it can start to take over your practice rather than having a well-balanced one. There is also an addictive quality to the feelings they create and the energy produced. I once expressed to Yogacharya how after backbending I felt cleansed, alive and revitalized.
In backbending, the lungs get stretched and often stressed during the practice. Coupled with feelings of fear and anxiety, which many people have in the practice the breath (not just the mind) is the first thing to become unstable. Breath, body and mind are so intermingled it is difficult to sometimes understand this or stay aware of it when right in the middle of an intense backbend. The last thing that often comes to mind is working more closely with the breath as the physical tension and sensations surface.
However, the breath is key to the entire practice.
As I learned backbends more intensely under my teacher it was always by watching and staying with the breath. This might sound extremely obvious but again when entering a deep backbend it is easy to lose sight of this simple intention. Being able to keep it somewhere in the background is not only the saving grace to focusing the mind, but it also deepens and expand the ability to exhale and inhale. In the beginning this may take several tries but learning to control the breath flow is almost more important than the position of the limbs.
I have observed in my personal practice when the breath became very heavy and the way this affected my thoughts. I have also watched how instinctively there is a tendency to want to force the breath out as if that might help deepen a backbend. Yet, it is the solid and steady practice of slow and deep breaths that allows the body to melt, the mind to slow down and unwanted thoughts to diminish. Many years ago when Ashtanga practitioners came to Yogacharya's shala it was obvious by the amount of 'forced' breaths or ujjayi breathings. Yogacharya was often running beside them saying, "no sound, no sound, no sound". It was a difficult habit to break and not the same approach as in Ashtanga-yoga.
Balance like flexibility and strength is also a question of degree. If the practice is not tempered with other postures and exercises, it can create physical, mental and emotional disturbances. This doesn't just apply to backbends but any practice. As I began studying Sivananda-yoga I had become too flexible while compromising my strengths. When I learned the primary series of Ashtanga yoga under Pattabhi Jois in Mysore my practice got leveled out with strength. In the first series there is only one backbend and a lot of forward bends in lotus.
Becoming more balanced also has a lot to do with the way you practice. Many teachers and in particular more traditional ones adhere to practicing the system of postures as there were laid out by the Master. In other words, you just don’t do whatever you feel like. There is a specific order to the postures. As well, most systems of yoga do not begin with backbends, but are near the end. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois states in the Yoga Mala that the incorrect method and sequence can weaken the body as well as the mind.
Channelling Sexual Energy
It certainly helps to not just accept being aroused sexually, but finding ways to channel it. In yoga, there are many ancient practices that deal with this since having an orgasm was considered a loss of vital fluids called ``ojas``. In the modern world it is about satisfying desire, which people misunderstand as, `´Do whatever the f*_k you want``. The teachings of yoga, however, say this is a clear way of repeating the karmic cycle of extreme highs and lows.
Feeling great, feeling shitting and doing it all over again. Or as my teacher said many times, "You only satisfy a physical need in asana and come back again to your practice to do the same thing again and again and again."
Many of the teachings have been misunderstood in terms of renouncing our physical desires, which leads to repression and denial. When the Buddha talked about letting go of attachment and desire he did not mean go home and throw everything out. An external gesture may not necessarily alter an internal state. The Buddha was talking about having the capacity and the will to take charge of directing the energy toward nobler planes. We cannot stop the mind from thinking or the feelings from feeling, but what we do in practice is become a witness or an observer to the process, the progress and the practice.
The question and concern about feeling aroused by the postures sheds light on your practice:
Is there a specific system being practiced?
Are the breaths counted?
Is the sequence irregular?
Is it practiced without any continuity?
Is it balanced with inversions, rest, twists, forward bends and proper relaxation?
Taking a look at some of these areas can help redirect one’s energies and re-balance the practice. Having sexual feelings during the practice is not wrong, but knowing what to do with them can be challenging.Instead of being eaten up with desire or driven by our sexual fantasy we can practice to observe it. The yogic lifestyle is to learn to ride the waves and keep the energy moving.
Some of the postures that balance sexual energies are: 1) forward bends; 2) the headstand or half headstand; 3) the head to knee forward bend; 4) shoulderstand pose and, 5) meditation.
The best method can also be to consult a teacher and ask them! Everyone can learn from such an open and gutsy question including the teacher.
Copyright The Yoga Way, Heather Morton 2012