This month, my local classes have been focusing on back extensions and I have enjoyed it so much I thought I’d pass along a few basic tips. I don’t know if they have noticed it, but just by giving our backbends more time and attention this month, they've gained a lot of mobility in their spines (shoutout to my local yoginis!). Seeing students improve is what makes yoga instructors happy.
Read on for some tips for your backbends...
Backbends always interest me. I've seen people who have recently picked up yoga and can execute Wheel Pose perfectly (insert eyeroll here). On the flip side, backbends don’t come naturally to me at all, so I’ve had to work over the years in order to do Wheel Pose. The moral of the story is: don’t force a backbend-- ever. This is your spine we’re talking about and it’s not worth an injury just so that you can take a photo for Instagram of yourself in a backbend. Some poses come naturally to a particular body, and some poses need time, focus, and mindfulness. This is a great lesson that yoga gives us: value progress over perfection, and patience above all.
"...value progress over perfection, and patience above all."
SO- this is a general backbend guide for the practicing yogi. I say it’s a general guide because there are many different backbend poses. In other words, I’m not breaking down any specific backbend in detail, but giving some pointers to help you practice your backbends safely. (If you want specific pose breakdowns, Yoga Journal and Yoga International have in-depth pose breakdown articles for almost every pose. Also, as always, it’s best to go to a class with an instructor that you trust.)
Another reason this is a general guide and not a pose breakdown is that there are also different ways to enter a backbend. Sometime you are going with gravity (like in camel, where you’re easing back and down), and sometime you are lifting up/off and going against gravity (for example, locust, when you’re activating your back muscles to lift off).
Anyway-- here we go!
•Warm up first. Just like deep stretches, you’ll need to be nice and warm before asking your spine and your muscles to enter a backbend.
•Specifically, warm up the spine in all directions: flexion, extension, laterally and rotationally. Gradually deepen the spinal movement. Don’t forget neutral spine. Poses like Mountain can help you achieve this by lengthening the spine, gently calling on many muscles in the body to support this.
•Warm the core, and engage the deep abs. It’s optimal to have a warm core anyway, but this also prepares you mentally for how you should be engaging the abs the entire time while in a backbend to remain safe and support the spine.
•Stretch the front of the body… chest, shoulders, and hips flexors (which, don’t forget, includes the quads).
•Create a strong foundation, and depending on the pose, this could be hands, feet (or both), or even shoulders (as in bridge pose, where you want to establish a base there to avoid placing weight on the neck).
•Activation of legs and glutes.
•Abs, abs, abs! You’ll want to call on the Transverse Abdominis (TVA), which you can do by engaging the waistband area muscles and then adding in mula bandha (activation of the pelvic floor).
•Tailbone: not tucking it, but easing it to neutral. In everyday life, many of us have a tendency to let the tailbone point slightly behind us due to common muscle imbalances. To bring the spine into a neutral and safe position, you’ll need to aim the tailbone toward the floor. So to clarify, you’re not actively tucking the tailbone, because then you may be, once again, out of alignment. This also ties into what the glutes are doing. The glutes should be active but not clenched. If you clench them, you’re likely to be pushing your hips forward and possibly bringing the tailbone too far forward or the lumbar spine out of alignment.
•Try to keep the shoulders aligned and keep the neck tension-free. In other words, gently pulling the shoulder blades down the back towards your back pockets and avoid shrugging at the neck.
•Lift and extend through the chest and heart area and let this extension naturally develop. A key thing to understand about backbends is that the point is NOT to simply bend the spine, but to lengthen and extend the spine, bringing space to the spine, not compression.
•In any backbend, you don’t want strain (ever!!) in the neck or the lumbar area.
•Lastly, if it hurts, don’t do it! Yoga is meant to nourish the body, not harm it.
**PS: ask your doctor if you have back injuries (past or present), are pregnant, or have high blood pressure.
Hope this helps!
Love & Light.
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Hi, I'm Blake. I love adventure, cooking, costume parties, wine, yoga, and reading...in that order. Follow my blog for yoga stuff, fitness tips, & healthy recipes...
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