When I think back to some of my first yoga classes I remember the absolute frenzy back bending would send me into. I hated them! Especially in full wheel pose (Urdhva Dahanurasana) or camel pose (Ustrasana) I felt like I couldn’t breath, was sure to break my neck or dislocate my shoulder, my low back felt pinched and I experienced waves of nausea. Now, that doesn’t sound too appealing, but I’m telling you with all honestly that back bends, and particularly the two mentioned above, are now some of my favorite poses.
Why, you ask, what changed? When I started practicing yoga my posture was well on its way to assuming the student’s studying-shoulders-whatever-man-slouch. On top of that, my attitude become much more closed and guarded, I didn’t want to feel vulnerable especially because at 20 living on my own I realized I was. My mental and physical habits created a collapsing of the chest and rolling in of the shoulders, and when my yoga teacher asked me to drastically do the opposite, it challenged me both physically as well as psychologically. Because of that challenge these are the poses from which I’ve learned some of my most valuable lessons. To move slowly into deep opening, breath calmly in the face of fear, and stay patiently even when I want to run away because all good things take time. I learned to allow huge physically/emotional releases to move through my body without intellectualizing them, and ultimately I learned that a strong open heart will protect me more than a guarded one.
Backbends include any posture where the spine arches backwards, opening the chest and stretching theabdomen. A direction of movement uncommon for most adults, and for that reason these postures can feel particularly awkward and difficult. But, also because this direction of movement is uncommon, back bending provides great benefits and creates balance in our body by countering the excessive forward folding we do (i.e. hunching over a desk or steering wheel or child). On a physical level, backbends will strengthen the back muscles, create more space in the chest and lungs, stretch and tone the internal organs, and in many back-bending postures strengthen the legs and shoulders.
Opening the front of our body also has energetic significant, and we’ve learned by now that Yoga is all about optimizing the flow of energy( prana) through the body. We present ourselves to the world with the front of our body. We all observe through body language that an open chest and upright posture shows confidence and courage. Chest opening also activates Anahata, the heart chakra, and the power of Love that comes from this center. As such, practicing back bends can generate within you these feelings of courage, heart opening love and confidence. It is not uncommon for a wave of emotions to follow back bending.
Unfortunately, backbends are also some of the most common postures to result in injury when practiced incorrectly or with too much ego. Because these poses often look quite glamorous there is a tendency for people to push themselves too far too quick, and then strain muscles in the back or exacerbate pressure on vertebral disks. So here are some tips to keep back bends strong and safe.
Back bends are about lengthening the spine, not just crunching it backwards. This requires a strong foundation and grounding downwards as well as maintaining active core abdominal muscles.
Strong foundation and grounding, as we’ve learned from standing postures, aligns the legs and hips and the downward energy makes it easier to grow tall and lengthen the spine. Like a Marrionette doll if the central downward chord goes slack the doll collapses. So the foundation needs to be strong and even (as in the four corners of the feet). This holds true for back bending done in a kneeling position or on the belly. Ground down and stabilize the part of the body touching the floor, and lengthen the spine from this center.
Keeping the core abdominal muscles active (gently pulling the belly in) is an extremely important part of preventing compression in the low back. The Bhanda Yoga Anatomy picture to the left shows exactly why. By contracting the abdominal muscles the organs press firmly against the internal edge of lumbar vertebrae, stabilizing them and preventing collapse on the external edge of the lumbar spine.
As always, the best way to stay safe is listening to your body, if you feel a nerve twinge or pain in the low back, you’ve gone too far back and need to reestablish your foundation, active the core muscles and then lengthen up and out.
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