I hated backbends when I began practising yoga. They were soo hard and seemed unachievable for my stiff middle-aged body. But now I can’t get enough! I love the feeling of length in the front of the body; my hips opening into extension and my chest broadening and lifting. Sometimes I truly feel like I am being released from the chains of modern life and reclaiming my right to stand up straight and proud! How did I fall in love with backbends? You wouldn’t believe what I’m about to tell you…
What is a backbend?
Backbends sound like, well, bending the spine backwards! But they are so much more. Technically, poses like Bow (Dhanurāsana), Bhujańgāsana (Cobra) and Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurāsana) are all “backbends”. To achieve a ‘bend’ in the back, all of your connective tissue and muscle, or myofascial system, needs to be long and mobile. Everything from your feet to the tips of your fingers are involved in lengthening and creating a “backbend”. Hips and shoulders move into extension, i.e., moving back behind the line of the body. The chest needs to broaden as well, so length in the myofascia across the front of the chest is vital too.
Learning to love backbends starts with loving the er, um, foreplay before the actual backbend! The following preparation poses will help you fall in love… by gradually lengthening the areas that need more space!
- Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Facing Hand Pose). This is where the love affair begins. This simple pose that we use in Sun Salutes and Vinyasa is invaluable for lengthening the front of the body. To add value, sweep the arms wide as you lift them to open the chest as well.
- Supine twists. Having the arms out at shoulder height as you roll the knees from side to side often brings the stretch right up into the front of the chest and shoulders. To further focus on the upper body, lift the knees to the chest before rolling them to the side with the feet off the floor. You can also rest here for a few breaths if it feels good.
- Bhujańgāsana (Cobra). This pose lengthens the abs and front of the hips beautifully and is particularly accessible to beginners and novice yogis.
- Salamba Bhujańgāsana (Sphinx). The middle of the back, or thoracic spine, can be one of the stiffest parts of the back. Focussing movement between the shoulder blades in Sphinx helps to gain movement through the whole spine when you move on to more advanced backbends. To add value, reach back for one ankle with the hand on the same side and draw the foot towards the bottom. This stretches Rectus Femoris as it passes from the front of the pelvis to below the knee and helps to open the front of the hips.
- Puppy pose. Reaching the arms forwards from Child Pose as you lift the hips so that the thighs are upright takes you into this wonderful shoulder stretch. To add value, engage the upper abs to draw the lower ribs towards the pelvis and feel the extra shoulder stretch.
- Lunges. Both high and low lunges target the front of the hip and increase extension. Inhaling arms overhead into the Crescent versions adds length through the torso and shoulders.
Adding these poses to your regular practice will certainly pay dividends in terms of myofascial length in the front of the body. And as your hips, chest and shoulders gradually open – you’ll feel an opening in your heart and realise you’re falling in love with backbends! When you’re ready to deepen the love affair, move on to Ustrāsana (Camel); Bhekāsana (Frog); Natarājāsana (Dancer)…and then you’ll see fireworks and rockets and may even forget what planet you’re on. Let the love affair begin!