November 19, 2013

I Always Believed I Could Change the World One Backbend at a Time. ~ Maggie Marie Genthner

In 2006 I was in Boulder going to school and frequenting the Bikram studio off Baseline.

Not too much longer after that I went to teacher training. While I could talk a lot about Bikram—what I saw, what I experienced, what I know, what I wish I didn’t know—I don’t really wish to give it any energy.

However, there was a time when it was just me, and that little studio (quite arguably the most beautiful hot yoga studio I have ever been to because it overlooks the Rockies) at that time he was just a picture on the wall.

Every class I was stretching and bending myself into a more flexible body and mind. It was pretty amazing.

I had severe back pain; I was too young to be suffering this kind of condition and it disrupted the flow of my life. I didn’t really like working out. I tried a lot of things but nothing worked. Some early trauma, a rock climbing accident, and uncertainty, left me in a less than powerful place in my life. I also disliked cold weather and found myself in the dead of winter, in Colorado.

That’s rough, especially when you don’t own a single pair of thermals, your car is from the 1980’s and has no heat.

That hot little room was the best medicine.

I remember taking my classes with the crew, all the teachers and visiting teachers. I loved them, I loved who they were as people; they inspired and uplifted me. I also felt like they celebrated who I was, which was a first. The energy was so positive back then. I miss that.

Sometimes people shine brighter when there is chaos surrounding them but I am pretty sure that regardless—they are good people, do good and because of the right mental attitudes in their practices have the resources necessary to make a difference. That is what I knew then, that is what kept me going back.

So again, this is not going to be a story about the Bikram world, or Bikram the man. I actually don’t practice or teach that style anymore.

This is the story of my love for back-bending, the hope I have for change in the wider yoga community through good practice, awareness and a surrender to what is higher than personality—what we all came here to learn about—L-O-V-E.

Yo, we are not totally there yet, let’s keep at it.


Mary Jarvis is a jewel from the pre-corporate era; she knew the scene before what-is-now-called-Bikram yoga, when it was “just yoga”, as she puts it—imagine that. I am not even sure if it was heated and I know they didn’t have yoga mats at that time.

Yoga has married the west, for better or for worse—we now have corporations, archaic hierarchies and business interests running this ancient practice, along with the remnants of an Indian culture that is pretty misogynistic (I sometimes speculate that it is a result of colonization, but have nothing to back that up at this time). Suffice it to say, we get a whole lot of mess with this mix. It is a miracle that something pure actually does still exist in the practice, but we have to dig and be honest.

Mary used to own a studio in San Francisco called Global Yoga; it was always my favorite place to practice. Life was good in the orange room as they say.

When Mary Jarvis teaches, she doesn’t teach some silly script or stand on a podium with a headset. She just teaches the postures, from the back of the room, because the number one thing I learned from her is that it’s not about the teacher—at all. The yoga class is for the students. She even moved people to cooler spots, if they got too hot. When I watched her teach it wasn’t about sado-masochism, control or some militant bullsh*t.

She queued, “Go into the postures with wisdom, not aggression.” When we were in that hot room together, the focus was on breath, stillness and moving our spine.

Mary was my first knock-your-socks-off-and-shift-your-world-view yoga teacher.

We all have had one—or many, if we are blessed. She is one of those women who you meet and  think, “Wow, she’s so cool. There’s something about her that is living in a really amazing place. She knows something, I don’t know what, but  it’s a ‘something’.”

She is a Scorpio and she tested her students—with that little stinging tale of hers—but she also has this amazing clear vision and open heart.

She weaves story into her class in such an amazing way. I will always be very grateful that she blessed my life.


Time machine (insert random musical medley): as I went to the yoga class, my back started to improve. I know that there are a lot of people who think that super bendy postures are a serious physical risk or that it is just odd to want to open the spine up like that.

Well, I can’t break it down into any scientific terms and I am not aware of any studies but what I can say is that when I am in a back-bend, my heart surrenders, softens, I feel no pain and I am in this very happy place. Not too many things do that for me, but backbends are where it’s at for this girl.

It is the psycho-emotive effect of it all—that part that bypasses reason.

I mean if we were to rely on reason, why would we open hearts at all? It hurts and everyone else is closed. Why do it? To get something?

No, we can’t do it for that aim.

We do it to surrender to something bigger, something universal and something beyond our own mind and limitations. While that doesn’t make much sense, it is the only reason that keeps me going.

The tricky part about a backbend is that we are so conditioned to outside authority that surrender is 1) ridiculously frightening and makes no sense or 2) we surrender, or are told to surrender, to that which does not serve our highest good—ego, addiction, obsession and insanity.

Yes, we can get addicted to yoga; yes, if our egos are so small that we don’t surrender to them, there will be plenty of egos to fill that space—and that’s how the rockstar yogi was born in the first place!

A dear friend always says to me, “If we don’t know what we are serving, we are probably not serving the light.”

In my backbend practice my mind is on: Can I move every inch of my spine? How do I soften to feel each vertebrae line up and bend? What is my life asking to turn around? What do I need to open my heart to? What do I need to see differently? What is ready to come full circle? 

In Zen, the Enzo (i.e. Zen) circle is of huge significance; it’s a “something” as Mary would say (and I guess a nothing too—Zen joke). It teaches us about the circle of life. What goes around comes around. That is just natural.

It is Karma and the cycle of life-death-life that Clarissa Pinkola Estes illustrates in the book Women Who Run With Wolves.

In her story of the skeleton woman, each time the fisherman casts his rod into the sea he finds her—lady death—disheveled, out of order, frighteningly real; she is a mess and she won’t leave. It is up to the protagonist to put her back into place, one by one, to be in the room with her and her tragedy.

Then a magical thing begins to happen; when the fisherman is completely unaware and asleep, the skeleton woman places her hand on his heart.

A tear is shed by him, she licks it up and becomes real. He then melts to the touch, and love exists.

Gender-roles aside and looking at this story from the point of view of the psyche (that is, my psyche because that’s what I have access to), I believe humbly that this is the work I have done with my spine; I am the fisherman and I am the skeleton woman.

When we bring attention to our spines, and to the bones, we align them and touch love for a moment, and then another and then another. It is the delicate fabrication of our spines, the very real tenderness; that that heaping bone pile is our story and what at the end of our lives we leave behind.

It is the part of us that can with a good honest yoga practice be put back together, whenever we fall out of alignment—out of our heads, out of our hearts, but back, back one more back, into truth.

From each burning and shedding something comes out transformed, renewed and the Phoenix does rise.

Backbends are my Zen circles and they are my bones reorganizing, telling this story, my story. 

I fall back, look. What do I see? One more inch, and then I look again. The spine moves because here it can trust. Each time I look farther and I meet myself—maybe it’s a toe, a breath or maybe a whole foot. I have even seen the back of my thighs, which is a pretty weird feeling at first and not something I recommend we start out looking for.

My backbends have gone beyond therapeutic; they are my art, my performance, my open heart and my freedom.  They keep me sane, when sometimes I look around at the yoga world, at this mess, the momentary meanness, the flared egos, the need for safety and certainty—the times when I see only madness.

Backbends remind me that I can transmute anything, even what appears to be the worst circumstances, the deepest betrayal and the most heartbreaking hurt—like losing your partner, losing what was once your life.

I am not saying it’s an easy prescription, or the only answer, but for me bending helps these eyes to view the world through beauty’s lens—and that kind of love lasts, even in madness—while everything else has fallen away (I didn’t intend for this to rhyme at all) backbends stay.


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Assistant Editor: Paige Vignola/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photos: courtesy of the author

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Maggie Marie Genthner