I’ll admit it. I’m a little bit “over” core strengthening, or at least abdominal strengthening, for the moment. One aspect of yoga is equanimity, a sort of inner calm. And I have reached a point, both physically and verbally, where the best act I can take to maintain my inner calm is to give my abs a freaking break.
One asana that tends to make my abs — and the rest of my body — happy is setu bandhasana (or setu bandha sarvangasana, depending on how you know it), or bridge. I get to lie down, for starters. Plus, my fullest expression of the pose is awesome for stretching the front side of my body while entering and exiting the posture massages my back. It’s win-win-win.
In its basic, static, unsupported form, bridge is a reclined backbend that looks something like this:
I start by checking that my feet are placed properly, under my knees. If they’re too far away, I won’t have the alignment to use my legs as a base of support, making my low back do the work of balancing my legs out in space in addition to doing the work of lifting me up. Not cool to ask my low back to do such multitasking, especially not with multiple large muscle groups.
Next, I check that my feet and knees are the appropriate distance away from my torso. Even after working with this pose for a decade, “appropriate distance” is something that changes day to day, even if it’s only by an inch or two. And that inch does matter. Bringing my feet in closer increases the opening in my front body, but it also increases the compression and muscle work in my back. While I can probably safely do most variations of bridge, that doesn’t mean every expression of the pose is right for my every day.
Once I’ve checked that my base of support is solid (which, to note, is a little more involved that I talk about here — it is a good idea to read up on a given backbend if it’s not part of your practice), I curl up my spine bit by bit. I’m not able to picture it vertebrae by vertebrae as some yogis suggest, but I can visualize it in spinal sections. First my tailbone and sacrum tilt toward my pubic bone. Then my lumbar spine rolls up, extending some but not so much that I feel and pinching or strain in my low back. Next, my thoracic spine rolls up, extending so its curve moves toward straightening out. Here’s where I like to double check that the movement is leading from my heart center, meaning my cervical spine (my neck) is staying relaxed. I think it must be moving some, just based on my understanding of how the spine works, but I check to make sure it doesn’t feel strained or compacted in any way.
All of these check-ins** happen with any expression of the pose I use. The main thing I’m checking for is that I’ve supported myself in such a way as to keep my spine comfortable and safe.
In some expressions of setu bandhasana, that support may come from the use of props:
I’m a fan of restorative bridge on days when I’ve already done a lot of backbending or other back strengthening work — or when I’m just really tired. Using props can also make the pose more accessible (for example, in the case of someone with a shoulder injury or someone with limited leg mobility). Other versions of supported bridge include using bolsters (differently), blocks, or hands and arms. My personal prop favorite involves a block under my sacrum with my legs outstretched.
Any my current favorite of all the “stretchy” bridges (as opposed to the back-strengthening bridges or heart-opening bridges) in my practice is what’s sometimes called rolling bridge, shown in the first part of this video:
Physically, I like it because it lets me maximize my stretch, at least for a moment, without stressing my spine (because I’m massaging my spine for longer than I’m asking it to support me in a static pose). I also like it as a pranayama exercise because it’s a good way for me to articulate breath with spinal movement.
There are certainly other expressions of setu bandhasana; I like them and use them sometimes. But where I am right now in my practice, these restful and rhythmic versions are what serve me as core strengthening counter poses.
** In some form or other. If I do a version of bridge where my knees aren’t bent and/or the soles of my feet aren’t on the floor, I might be checking the alignment of my thighs bones with my hip sockets. Or instead of lifting my own spine, I might be checking that I’ve positioned my props in such a way as to safely and comfortably support me in the pose.