What can yoga backbends do for you on an emotional and physical level? In this article, we go through some fundamental principles and techniques.
Our spines are a combination of strength and flexibility or Sthira and Sukha. Large muscles and strong bones give us structure and protect sensitive nerves, while flexible ligaments and tendons allow the spine to move in different directons.
Sthira and Sukha, one of the gifts of yoga ayurveda, generate a growing sensitivity to our own prana so that we learn to move through our lives with steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha). These two Sanskrit terms are known to most yoga students from an oft-quoted aphorism in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: sthira-sukham asanam. This is sutra 2.46, and is most commonly translated, “posture (asana) should be stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha),” but is more literally translated as “resolutely abide in a good space.”
With regular backbends we can help to protect this wonderful balance by increasing mobility while strengthening the supporting muscles around the skeleton.
Always start with a warm up!
Due to our daily activities lots of us will be habitually rounding our shoulders and backs with things like mobile phone usage, computer work, driving and cycling, for example. When we practice backbends we do the very opposite, so we always need to start gently and continue in a safe way.
To warm up and mobilise your spine in different directions you can practice Cat Cow variations, gentle twists and side bends. Sun salutations are great ways to prepare yourself as they warm the whole body. Go easy on your first one with Cobra to start Sun salutations so that when you go through Cobra or Upward Facing Dog, you’re not coming into the full expression of the pose straight away. It will reduce the risk of injury.
In a backbend, you are literally stretching the front of your chest and opening your heart. They make you feel more open and receptive to experiences, emotions and relationships as backbends stimulate the heart chakra. This is one of the biggest benefits of practicing backbends for most of us.
Practice backbends safely
Backbends are done to stabilise the sacrum in its optimal nutated position while protecting the spine from overarching. By engaging the inner thighs, the transverse abdominals, and mula bandha, we should make sure core support for the sacrum so that we can drop our heavy load and reap all the invigorating benefits of backbends. Be aware that when learning how to safely bend your back you may experience rational and irrational emotions. Sometimes the most flexible students have the most troubling emotions arising when they start practicing backbends.
While we practice backbends to stretch the front of the chest and open the front of the shoulders, we also practice to open our quads and psoas. While backbends appear to be all about the spine, they actually require strong and open quads and psoas.
Another tip for a safe backbend is to keep your core engaged to protect your lower back rather than crunching it. A good way to engage your core is with Mūla Bandha.
Note: Mūla Bandha is a Sanskrit (मूल बंध) compound term: Mūla denotes “root”, “base”, “beginning”, “foundation”; “origin or cause”, “basis”, “source”; Bandha denotes “bondage”, “fetter”,”posture”, “joining together”, “catching hold of”. Lyengar (1976: p. 525) defines Mūla Bandha as: A posture where the body from the anus to the navel is contracted and lifted up and towards the spine.
There’s a lot going on in backbends. There are three sections of the spine, the lumbar and cervical spine are the most mobile, while the thoracic spine is the least mobile. In a backbending practice, we need to stabilize both the lumbar and cervical area in order to mobilise the upper back.
When you practice wheel pose or bridge pose, keep your knees in alignment. Find internal rotation of the thigh bones when your thigh bones fall out. When you are in wheel, bridge or camel pose, try to turn your inner thighs muscles outward and use your feet to root down towards the floor with your calf bones rolling inwards. This will help broaden the lower back instead of crunching it or clenching around the region of sacrum.
Always see your neck as an extension of the spine. Don’t throw your head back right away in cobra pose or upward facing dog, since it won’t make your backbend to feel better or any deeper. Keep the back of the neck long to protect your neck joint. Lift from your sternum upwards, instead of just throwing your head back.
We provide several workshops focusing on backbends. You may find more information here.
Photo Credit：Helene Lee taken by Rich John Matheson