As a group of poses, backbends seem to stir strong emotions. Some people absolutely love them. For others, a class focusing on backbends triggers fear and uncertainty.
With preparation and guidance, backbends are uplifting and energising. They give us back the energy we put into them, leaving us feeling invigorated and happy.
" ….. emotionally there is no chance for a person who does backbends to get depressed or distressed." B.K.S Iyengar
Backbends open our heart and lungs and help us to bring flexibility into the upper part of our spine – the thoracic spine. Day by day, we put a lot of pressure on our thoracic spine, and usually, it's the kind of pressure that curves our spine forward. We lean – or even slump – forward over computers or desks, we hunch over reading our iPads and iPhones. Even when we walk, we tend to lean forward.
By doing backbends, we help our spine to flex the other way and then return it to a neutral, healthy position.
What is the source of our fear?
Backbends take us into the unknown. We explore parts of our body that we are less familiar with, and we bend in ways we are unused to and thus feel vulnerable.
We instinctively know how vital our spine is to our well-being. Back pain is debilitating. We have all felt a twinge (or worse) on one or more occasions. Unfortunately, our fear that we might give ourselves back pain actually ends up contributing to problems.
Staying within our comfort zone is not an option when it comes to spinal health. We must learn how to safely flex our spines in all directions if we are to stay pain-free. And, the inevitable surge of energy and happiness we experience when we do so is a lovely bonus.
Not every backbend has to be overly challenging to be beneficial
When we think backbends, the most advanced poses might jump to mind: Urdhva Dhanurasana (the upward bow pose) for example. Flexible shoulders, upper back and hips are essential to doing this backbend. It's best done later in a class when the muscles are warmed up, and the chest is open.
Simpler backbends are no less beneficial.
For example, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward-facing dog pose) is a simple backbend that can be practised by most beginners. Doing Urdhva Mukha Svanasana with your hands on a chair or with hands on a brick helps to create the space needed in the spine to bend backwards evenly without compressing the lower-back region. This approach also requires less flexibility than the traditional asana with hands on the floor
Beginners are often first introduced to backbends by learning chatushpadasana, a soothing asana which engages the entire spine, apart from the cervical spine in backward extension. Once this asana can be practised without pain or undue discomfort other simple backbends can be introduced such as
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Bhujangasana (cobra pose), Dhanurasana (bow pose), Ustrasana (camel pose) and supported Urdhva Dhanurasana through a chair to develop our hip and shoulder flexibility and start to open the chest.
These postures also help us to move past our fears and become familiar with moving the spine in new ways.
The key to avoiding injury in backbends is to work intelligently and listen to our body, to work evenly and not to overdo it. Understanding the correct alignment prevents straining the lower back and causing pain.
Often students feel pain because they overwork and jar the lower back, overdo the extension of the neck and underwork the chest and hips. This happens because the pelvis, hips, middle and upper back and chest area are often tight and the muscles opposing these areas may be weak. I am talking about the hamstrings and gluteus muscles (which are stretched in forward bends), and the large trapezius and upper back muscles that can be weakened from constant desk work.
We develop our capacity and understanding by first becoming proficient in the standing poses, in particular, Virabhadrasana 1 (warrior one) but most importantly Tadasana in which we learn to lengthen our spine and create space. Adho Mukha Svānāsana (downward-facing dog pose) is also a prerequisite because it releases the lower back and opens the chest, shoulders and arms. Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose) opens and stretches the quadriceps muscles, and lying over bricks opens the dorsal spine. Other arm and shoulder preparation include Gomukhasana (cow face pose), Urdhva Hastasana (arms stretched overhead), Baddhanguliyasana (hands interlocked overhead).
After backbends we need to learn to release the spine with asanas such as Adho Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Virasana, Uttanasana, Bharadvajasana and cooling asanas such as Halasana and gentle forward bends
We don't always want to stay within our comfort zone
No-one jumps out of aeroplanes because they want to feel safe. They want to feel alive and exhilarated. But of course, they always check their parachute.
Approached with care and preparation backbends give us a safe environment to challenge ourselves to go beyond our usual constraints and limits and find new parts of ourselves to explore.
We are ready for the more the advanced backbends when we have extended the entire spine, shoulders and hips and understand how to work with an awareness that facilitates correct alignment. This ensures our lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine, which are naturally flexible, do over-bend.
Try this backbend sequence.
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