Backbending 101

There are a lot of backbending poses in yoga. I mean a lot, a lot! Sometimes we don’t even consider that we are doing a backbend such as in warrior I, other times it’s pretty obvious like in camel. No matter how big or small your backbend is, though, there are certain principles to follow. Sometimes these principles are easier to follow, other times it may seem impossible. When it seems impossible you want to really pay attention to how your body feels and not push too hard.

1. Concentrate your bend more at the tips of your shoulder blades than at the lower back. The lower back (lumbar region of the spine) is the most flexible part of the spine. It tends to get overused already. We round it when we’re sitting, standing or even laying down.

Depending on your body, it might sway forward or backward. The goal is to have a normal lodotic curve in the spine as opposed to an exaggerated curve either way. Often times when we sit a lot, the back rounds back as the hip flexors in the front of the hips contract and tighten. Doing backbending poses counteracts this. When we concentrate our effort at the upper back where we tend to be quite inflexible we are more effective in our efforts.

 

 

2. Use Mula Bandha. I wrote an earlier post on the bandhas, or locks within the body, which I encourage you to check out. Mula bandha is the root lock and ideally could be held almost through an entire yoga class. If you squeeze the muscles at the pelvic floor up you are engaging this lock. By doing so you are using the deeper core muscles which will allow you to go into your backbend safely without pushing too far.

3. Engage the Abdominal muscles. If you are taking a pose that starts off lying on your stomach, for instance a sphinx pose (see below), it’s easy to feel the work in the abs. When you go deeper into a full wheel for example, this becomes more difficult as your stomach stretches. Practice makes perfect though! Keep practicing the principles and eventually the bend will happen throughout your spine as opposed to just at one particular area (usually the lumbar portion).

4. Pay attention to the position of your head. Your neck should feel comfortable. If it hurts your neck to take it out of alignment with the upper spine keep it in line. Always practice with a mind for compassion for yourself. Anytime you get on your mat you are in your space, doing your personal practice. The person beside looking straight up to the ceiling in his or her cobra has nothing to do with you. Do what feel right for you!

5. Take a bit of the round out of the lower back. This can be done by dropping your tailbone just slightly toward your heels. You don’t want the low back to flatten completely, just come to a normal lordotic curve. As soon as we start backbending this curve becomes more pronounced and can lead to some amount of back pain. By starting off in a normal curve we allow the spine to open  a little more gradually and ensure that we don’t blast into a pose and end up injured.

6. After care. Backbends stretch the entire front of the body. As a result the femur bones (the long bones in the thighs) can be pushed forward in the hip socket. After doing backbends a good general rule is to root the femurs to the back plane of the body. This can be accomplished by lying on the back with legs extended. Lift one leg straight up and hold onto the thickest part of the hamstring or the calf depending on your flexibility. Push the thigh into the hands and hold for several seconds. Repeat this action at least three times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sphinx Pose

Keeping all of the above principles in mind, lie on the stomach with the forehead on the floor and the elbows bent into the side body. The hands should be underneath the shoulders in this starting position. Bring the hands more forward so that the elbows are under the shoulders. Push into the elbows to lift the upper body. Remember the abs are tightening, mula bandha is engaged and you are taking the tailbone slightly toward your heels. Press the shoulders back and the heart forward. The toes should be pressing into the floor. If there is any pain in the low back let your heels drop out to the sides.

This is a beginner backbend and so a good one to start with. There are links to various posts with more intermediate to advanced backbends through this post. Remember the principles and stay safe!

Read about the Benefits of Backbending.

 

 

 

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The Benefits of Backbending

There are many benefits to backbending, both physical and emotional. It’s typical to find at least one backbend in a yoga class; at least during cobra in sun salutes. When we bend in the back we strengthen the muscles along the spine and those in the lower back for sure, but there’s more to it than that.

Backbending poses can actually help you to realign the spine. As I sit writing this post right now I have one leg crossed over the other causing a slight curve in the lower part of my spine (well, not anymore- I just corrected myself). This habitual practice in itself will cause back pain over time as the spine adjusts to this way of sitting. But even the action of sitting itself causes a tightening of the hip flexor muscles which pulls at the spine. See this post for more information about how sitting affects the body. It’s typical for the spine to become misaligned with these and other actions that move our spines forward and round them. By pulling the shoulders back and arching backward – even slightly – you help to realign the spine as the vertebrae open the other way from the norm as pictured here:

But that’s not all! Backbending poses open up the chest muscles and abdominal muscles as well as the intercostal muscles that are found between ribs. During this process the heart also receives a stretch resulting in increased efficiency in pumping blood  throughout the body. At the same time the respiratory system is wide open allowing an unrestricted breath. The kidneys found  near the lower part of the back behind the diaphragm receive a squeeze in backbends causing an influx of fresh blood on the release. Fresh blood = fresh oxygen = healing.

The digestive system is also benefited by backbends. As the internal organs that are found in the abdomen are stimulated their efficiency increases helping to fight off constipation and improve digestion in general. This can also help with menstrual cramps.

Energetically, backbends open the anahata (heart) chakra, increasing our compassion and loving-kindness both for ourselves and others. It is said that these heart opening poses can also combat depression. There is a definite release of tension and an endorphin boost when practicing backbends. Remember to practice with compassion, honoring your personal limitations to prevent injury and to get the most out of these powerful poses.

I’ll post more on the actual poses soon!

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