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Yoga for Detoxification: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Purification is central to the yogic path. The second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begins with this aphorism (translated by Alistair Shearer): “Purification, refinement, surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.” Over the millennia, Hatha Yoga has developed many purification tools, including breathing practices and neti nasal washing.
While studying in India with Geeta and B.K.S. Iyengar, I learned one of yoga’s most powerful purifying poses. When any in our group of yogis succumbed to the almost inevitable intestinal upsets, or suffered respiratory distress from breathing noxious air (there were no air-quality standards in Pune), we were assigned Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.
Also known as “Bridge Pose,” Setu Bandha soaks the lymph glands in the neck and throat with blood. Plus, it 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 back bending 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 your neck and strengthen your legs and hips. (Note: Because your hips are the highest point in the body in Setu Bandha, it is best not to practice this pose when you’re on your menstrual period. It can reverse the natural flow and might interrupt your period.)
How to Practice Setu Bandha
Begin by lying on your back on a nonskid yoga mat 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 body 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, bend your elbows to 90 degrees and press the elbows and upper arms into the floor, arching your ribcage up off the floor. Then straighten your arms out alongside your body.
Press the soles of your feet into the floor and then extend your knees out from the pelvis, away from the body, to begin lifting your back body off the floor. Clasp your hands underneath you and rock side to side on your shoulders until you come to rest on the tops of your shoulders.
Keep extending your knees out away from the pelvis and avoid the tendency to push up through your hip joints. Simultaneously, lengthen your throat to move the chin away from your chest.
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 5 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, lengthening your spine as you lower it.
Return your arms to your sides or allow them to continue extending overhead, whichever is most comfortable.
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. It’s helpful to practice back bends more than one time to allow your body to acclimate to them.
Weave Setu Bandha into your regular yoga practice, or practice it on its own. Practice it for purification, restoration of energy, or just because it feels good.
Another Yoga Pose Primer from YogaUOnline and Charlotte Bell - Refining Bhujangasana: New Tips for an Old Standby.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.