When it comes to our yoga practice, backbends can often be just as intimidating as headstands, and with good reason: As with all advanced postures it’s important to have a secure foundation and understanding of alignment in order to avoid injury.
However, there’s no need to worry: by keeping these simple tips in mind you can comfortably and safely deepen your backbend practice.
Physical Benefits Of Backbending
We spend much of our days with our spine curled inwards. Over time, this tendency to hunch forwards - at our desks, while driving, and even walking around - results in contraction and tightness in the muscles responsible for our posture. Backbends are a great way to counteract this and release the built up tension in these areas.
Our spine is actually intended to be quite mobile; however, as we age this natural mobility declines due simply to a lack of practice. Incorporating backbends into your fitness routine will help keep your spine healthy and young.
Backbends stretch the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which enable the lungs to expand when we take a breath. By creating flexibility in these muscles we can increase our lung capacity: decreasing breathing rate and increasing oxygenation. (1)
Emotional / Psychological Benefits Of Backbending
By opening the chest and upper body in our backbends we stimulate our Heart Chakra. For this reason backbends can often result in the release of stored emotion, and can thus have a cathartic effect.
Practicing backbends also requires a certain amount of daringness and abandonment. Backbends open us up fully, exposing ourselves in a way that is unfamiliar and perhaps out of our comfort zone. However, this openness also allows us to invite in new perspectives that help us confront life stressors.
Backbends are also known to have an energizing effect. The full frontal stretch allows blood to circulate into stagnant areas, and having the heart above the head increases our heart rate. This boost in energy is why it isn’t recommended to practice deep backbends in the evening.
- Low back pain/injury: While backbends may alleviate pain in certain cases it is important to listen to your body. If you have an injury consult with your doctor and avoid deep backbends.
- Certain spinal conditions affecting lumbar spine: If you have been diagnosed with any of the following conditions it is best to avoid any deep backbends that produce tension in the lumbar spine.
- Hypertension: If you have untreated hypertension you should avoid all poses that bring the heart above the head. If your hypertension is managed by medications you may safely perform gentle or supported backbends.
One of my favorite sayings as a Yoga teacher is “No Pain, No Pain;” and when it comes to backbends this couldn’t ring any more true.
If at any point you feel compression, sharp sensations or pain you need to immediately ease out of the posture: either taking a gentler modification or foregoing that pose all together.
Remember to start small
Begin with gentler backbends and slowly increase your flexibility before attempting the more difficult postures. The benefits of backbending are the same, whether you are practicing cobra pose or getting up into a full wheel.
Types Of Backbends
There are three types of backbends we see in Yoga:
The muscles along the front of the body remain active as we rely on gravity to pull us into the backbend. (examples: camel, wheel)
The muscles in the back of the body are activated to pull the body up into a backbend. (example: locust)
Muscles of the arms and/or legs are used to deepen the backbend. (examples: cobra, bow)
As with any time we work on our flexibility it is important to warm up your muscles before diving in.
Backbends don’t just involve the spine, we also need to open our shoulders as well as the muscles of our hips and legs. Sun Salutations are a great way to not only introduce heat to the body, but also stretch all the muscle groups you’re going to call on in your backbend.
Traditional Sun Salutation
From there, start moving your spine through all dimensions: including side bends, twists and cat-cows.
Cat-Cow Yoga Pose
One of the most essential things I learned through my backbending journey was to think of these poses as front stretches.
This mindset encourages us to lengthen along the front of our bodies, creating the space necessary to bend backwards without causing painful compression in the lower vertebrae.
Before bending, inhale to find length along the line from your sacrum up through the crown of the head. This allows you to bring the bend into the upper spine instead of dumping all of your weight into the weakest point: the lumbar.
There are certain key alignment instructions you should keep in mind throughout all your backbends:
- Knees hips distance apart: Whether you’re on your stomach, your knees or your back you want ensure your knees are in line with the hips at all times.
- Feet parallel to each other: Your feet are part of your foundation in these poses, it is thus important to keep them firmly grounded in proper alignment. This becomes particularly evident when moving into poses such as wheel where the feet have the tendency to splay outwards.
- Spine follows a smooth line: Here the line is curved, but what is essential is you do not create any abrupt angles in your backbend. This includes in the lumbar spine as well as the neck, which we tend to throw back.
Release & Activation
While in a backbend there are certain parts of your body you want to release and others you need to activate to properly support yourself. Some of these depend on which type of backbend you’re performing, while others stand true for all:
- There is some debate in the yoga community about whether or not your glutes should be firm during a backbend. From my personal experience relaxing through your buttocks relieves contraction in the lower back muscles enabling you to go further into your bend.
- Activating your core by gently pulling the bellybutton in and up towards your spine helps protect the lower back by preventing collapse into this area. This also provides a foundation for you to find more length along the front of your body.
- Drop your shoulders! You don’t want to create unnecessary contraction around the neck in your backbends. Remember, your entire spine is involved in the alignment and we are looking for a continuous, smooth line.
It’s always important to perform a counter pose (or three!) to reset the spine back to a neutral position.
Which pose you choose as your counter depends on where you’re coming from. If you were on your knees or your stomach, coming to rest in child’s pose is a great option. Whereas if you’re on your back, simply pull your knees into your chest and give yourself a hug.
Additionally you may want include some gentle twists, or a deeper forward bend. There’s no hard and fast rule as to which pose to perform as your counter, simply think about moving your body in the opposite way you just did.
Try It Out
Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test. This backbending class with Kino Yoga will give you a chance to try out what you’ve learned.
Do you feel a difference?