Whenever we ask for asanas our yogis would like to do in class, we hear “splits” or “arm balances”, but hardly ever someone wants to do backbends. Why is that? First off, doing backbends means bringing your chest forwards and opening your heart and that’s–let’s face it–always a bit scary. Furthermore, a lot of the people deal with back problems (maybe caused by an office job) and back bending is often done wrong. We want to tell you how you can benefit from opening your heart and let you know about some “do’s & don’ts” of backbends.
So, let’s see what backbends do to your body:
Whenever you bend backwards, you lengthen the front side of your body – which means you get a good stretch for your pectoral & abdominal muscles, groin and thighs.
Your back muscles contract and you strengthen them. If your alignment is correct, the backbend should occur in thoracic spine (never in the lumbar spine!), so your chest & ribcage can widen, and you can create more space for your heart and lungs. With a steady backbend-practice, you feel like breathing deeper (which can be helpful for yogis with e.g. asthma). But it’s not only stretching & strengthening the muscles, but also your internal organs elongate, which can relieve acid reflux and promote digestion.
Another good thing about backbends is, they help you to relax your shoulders & neck and it’s stated they can reduce stress, anxiety and grief (due to more oxygen entering the body).
If you are ready to practice some backbends now you know about the benefits, make sure to warm up your body before starting. You can go for a few rounds of sun salutations (A, B, C) or some cat & cow by gently letting your belly drop on every inhale and separating your shoulder blades by rounding your back on every exhale (as you can see in picture series #1 below). Once done warming up, always remember the guideline (applying to whatever you do on your yoga mat!): „better safe than sorry“.
You should always listen to your body, respect your own limits and go very slow when entering or leaving a backbend. To avoid a hollow back (hyper lordosis), brace your abdominal muscles, pull your navel in and tuck your tailbone under before you start to bend. As mentioned before, the thoracic spine should move, not your lumbar spine!
A big misbelief is that to really open your heart, it has to be an advanced backbend (such as camel or wheel pose). The truth is, that all the benefits for your body can come with a much more basic pose as well. A backbend in mountain pose is a good example: if you contract your abdominal muscles, lengthen your spine, open your chest and straighten your legs, you can feel a good stretch in your hip & belly and an opening of your heart space (see in picture #2).
If you feel like having a good balance day, you can try dancers pose (as in picture #3). A little hint: press one foot into the mat and the other one into your hand to make your pose a little more stable!
More advanced yogis may be ready for camel pose, which is definitely a very intense backbend. In this pose you should try to shift your hips slightly forward (in one line with your knees) and pull up your chest but not lose the strength in your core (to protect your lower back). Your shoulders should always be away from your ears to avoid compressing your neck. If you want to take it slow in camel pose (always a good choice!), start by bringing your hands onto your lower back first and then try to grab one heel with your hand first before doing full camel pose with both hands on your heels (shown on picture #4).
Another beautiful heart opener is shoulder bridge. If it’s accessible for you, you can interlace your fingers under your back (palms together or not) to make your chest & hips rise even higher (shown in picture #5) More advanced yogis can go for full bridge pose. You do this by lifting your hip first (as in shoulder bridge), bringing your hands beside your ears, pulling your elbows slightly together (to make sure they don’t divert outwards) and then straighten your arms to lift your hips, chest and head. (picture #6) Keep your knees hip width apart. You can leave this asana by pulling your chin to your chest and lowering down slow & controlled.
Hopefully we could allay some of your fears of back bending, so that you can’t wait to practice them in your next yoga class.