The curse of modern life.
How do you physically exist in the modern world? Hunched over keyboards and steering wheels? Carrying too much weight in our bags, or on our shoulders as we battle to stay connected in this digital age. This equates into a grotesque adult imitation of the foetal position with hips flexed and shoulders hunched . Then, one day, we discover that we can no longer draw our shoulders back or stand up straight.
The problem is that muscles and connective tissues on the front of the body have shortened into this semi-permanent slouched position. And they can no longer stretch enough to come out! Though it’s usually blamed on advancing age, this doesn’t have to be our reality. And yes, yoga has the perfect solution in the form of good old backbends. Love them or hate them, they can be your best friend and if we befriend them, they will take you from slouch to walking tall.
So how do backbends work? By adding backbends to your practice, you prevent and reverse the tendency towards shortened soft tissues. Backbends beautifully mobilise and lengthen the front of the body. But we are just beginning….
What can backbends do for you?
- Improve posture. Gaining length in the torso, hips and shoulders allows the body to align itself into a better posture. The spine settles into its natural curves and the shoulders draw back helping you walk taller. Not only does this feel good, it is great for your digestion, improves lung function, fosters self-confidence and makes you more attractive. What’s not to like?
- Open the chest and heart. With an emphasis on drawing shoulders back and down whilst projecting the heart forwards, backbends physically lengthen tissues across the chest and shoulders. They also energetically target the heart chakra and the emotional aspects associated with it building confidence and resilience.
Nourish our spinal discs. Spinal, or intervertebral, discs are the soft cartilage cushions between the bones of the spine. They do not have a blood supply but they are like a sponge – they absorb nourishing fluid from surrounding tissues every time they are stretched and that fluid is squeezed out every time they are squashed. So sequences with alternating forward folds and back bends, like Sun Salutations, are actually nourishing your spinal discs.Think of it like the world’s best smoothie for your spine!
How to do safe backbends
There are a few basic principles to remember when doing backbends to gain maximum benefit in a safe way.
- Inhale. This enhances the mobilising of connective tissues in the chest as the ribs move on the inhale. And it just feels right.
- Bandhas. Backbends with no core engagement are likely to be uncomfortable as the lumbar spine is compressed into extension. Engaging the core with Mula and Uddiyana bandha makes for a safer, less compressed back bend.
- Stop rib flare. Using the abs to gently draw the lower ribs back and down further enhances the action of the core and helps to get even curve through the whole spine rather than just at the waist. One cue I love is: “Use your abs like guy ropes to gently hold down your ribs towards the pelvis”.
- Glutes. To activate or not to activate glutes in back bends? This is such a hot topic in yoga circles these days. Some teach that glutes must be relaxed. Others that they should be active. My advice? Try both and see which works best for you.
- Preparation, preparation, preparation. Though we all want to do the iconic backbends like Wheel and Upward Bow, it may take many years of practice to get there. Preparation poses that open the hips, like Lunges and Warrior 1, or open the chest, like Sphinx and Puppy Pose will pave the way for your deeper backbends which will come in time.
Backbends really are wonderful. They range from simple enough for a real beginner to incredibly challenging for the advanced yogi. They are good for health and well being, perfect for energising in the morning and ideal for calming at night. There truly is a backbend for all seasons. So, roll out that mat and backbend your way to a happier you.