When you look at photos of people in super-deep backbends (basically any pose where the feet touch the back of the head), it often looks like they have a sharp 90 degree kink in their lower back. It looks that way because they do: they have a hyper-mobile lower back. That certainly is advantageous for deep backbends, but it is not something you want to emulate if your back doesn’t do that naturally, because it is an almost guaranteed path to severe lower back pain for the average body.

Instead, in order for mere mortals like us to deepen our backbends, we need to focus on opening everything else, which includes the upper back and the shoulders (next week’s theme), and the hips. Of course, people with hyper-mobile lower backs would equally benefit from increasing mobility in their hips, but their hyper-mobile lower back makes it hard to bother. After all, if your feet are on your head, you are done, right? Wrong, of course. It’s not about being done, it’s about being balanced. Look at the photos of the people with their feet touching their heads, and see how many of them haven’t opened their hips (look at the angle between their pelvis and their thighs. If the thighs aren’t pointing backwards relative to the pelvis, the person isn’t using their hips; BKS Iyengar is one of the exceptions). Do the poses of the people whose feet are touching their heads actually look better, in the sense of more balanced, more spacious, more free?

A hyper-mobile lower back is actually an impediment to finding true alignment and balance in a deep backbend, so the next time you envy the person on the mat next to you with their toes massaging the back of their scalp, see if they got there through a balanced opening in all the relevant joins, or if they simply have a hyper-mobile lower back, in which case your envy is probably unwarranted. (Though you shouldn’t scoff, either. It’s just a fact that all bodies are different, and even with a hyper-mobile lower back it is possible to come into a balanced backbend. It’s just that the challenges are a bit different.)

Envying someone with a hyper-mobile lower back is just an example of our tendency to be achievement-oriented rather than experience-oriented. And if your whole approach to yoga is achievement-oriented, than you are missing out on the real gifts of yoga. So open your hips, keep your lower back safe by toning your lower abs and pressurizing your abdominal cavity, and stop worrying about where your feet are. Learning to stop worrying where your feet are may prove harder than getting your feet to your head, but it is exceedingly worthwhile.