When it comes to backbends you might either be a person whom they come easily to or you might feel not very mobile in your spine. As backbends are becoming increasingly popular among yogis around the world, it is important to understand what happens in your body as you lift your gaze up towards the ceiling and maybe take it towards the back of the room. We would like to stress the importance of warm up and cool down, it is as important to prepare your spine for a deep backbend as it is to counterpose it.
Backbands in Yoga
An optimal end-game of practising backbends should be an evenly looking arch, created by our spine. As much as we are focusing on the bend, we also need to focus on opening our chest and shoulders and engaging the right muscles that support our movements in these postures.
Backbends in yoga can be split into 2 groups: Prone backbends and Supine backbends.
Prone backbends are those in which we are lifting our chest and spine up (Cobra pose); and supine backbends are those in which we are often lifting the pelvis up. In prone backbends we are working against gravity, whereas in supine backbends gravity helps us as it draws our upper back.
Your spine can be divided into three main areas with Axis and Atlas framing it at the top and Sacrum and Coccyx protecting it at the bottom (note: variation may occur as each body is different). The lumbar spine is the part located in the lower back area and consists of 5 vertebrates. Those are then followed by 12 vertebrates of the Thoracic spine, your ribs are attached to those vertebrates, one pair to each Thoracic vertebrae. Last but not least is the upper part, which is called the Cervical spine and consists of 7 vertebrates.
To understand that spine is divided into those three sections is important, as each section has differing properties and capabilities.
The main purpose of practicing backbends is to practice extension of the thoracic spine, which is by nature hypomobile (has limited mobility). In contrast to that is the lumbar spine that is naturally more mobile and can be hypermobile (can have a lot of mobility). Our lifestyle habits often lead to an even more stiff thoracic spine and incorrect movement in backends can lead to increased hypermobility in the lumbar area, as the body might try to compensate. Neither of which is something we should aim for.
As a result, your thoracic spine might start moving and acting as if it was a one-piece unit and disregard the fact that it compounds 12 individual vertebrates. Then when practicing backbends no extension is applied to it and that part of your spine simply tips back, maintaining its shape.
The curve matters
The easiest way to find if your backend is evenly distributed is to set up a camera and film yourself during your practice. If you see sharp angles, almost resembling the tip of the letter V, followed by flat lines you know that you are not extending the whole length of your spine. The second good indication of an uneven backend is if you experience pain during the practice or if your breath feels labored and you feel relief upon exiting the pose.
Imagine to create
If you notice that your backbends are a little bit uneven, you can then start actively working on improving this.
First, visualize your spine anytime you practice backends and try to feel each vertebra for what is it – a unit of its own.
Secondly, start moving your body slowly and mindfully, focusing on the opening of your chest. Rotate your shoulders backward. Apart from bending back, keep lengthening your spine.
Asanas that can help you with your backbends
As backbends in yoga continue to offer numerous various benefits, we prepared a list of Asanas that can guide you to a safer and more beneficial deep backend.
Reverse Prayer: Place your shins on the mat and sit on your heels, activate your core, and gently press your navel towards your spine to prevent the lower back from overextending. Take your shoulders backward, look ahead and try placing your palms together behind your back.
Low Lunge: Stretch and warm your hip flexors before you engage in backbends as hip flexors are an important part of backbends.
Cat and Cow: Mobilise your shoulders and start warming up the spine.
Puppy Pose: Focus on opening your shoulders as you practise this Asana in preparation for backbends and the rest will follow.
Baby Cobra: As you start lifting your forehead and chest off the mat, focus on gently drawing your shoulders back and engaging muscles that surround your spine.
If you are starting with yoga, keep practicing the postures mentioned above. Similarly, if you notice that the shape of your backbends might be a little off or if you experience pain, you might also benefit from connecting back with the less strenuous backbends. Keep lengthening your spine, focusing on its extension while bending backward. First and foremost, keep your backends in yoga enjoyable.
In some of our following articles, we will be focusing on more advanced backends and how to enter/exit them safely. Those will be:
- Camel Pose
- Cobra Pose
- Upward Facing Dog
- Seal Pose
- Wheel Pose