For most people, backbends are something that we try to avoid whenever possible in our practice. There are those gifted people that have a naturally open spine and love doing poses like urdvha dhanurasana (wheel) and eka pada rajakapotasana (full pidgeon), and oh how beautiful it looks when they do them. However, for the rest of us who have the standard, not super flexible, spine in backbends (me included) these poses cause twinges of pain and the next day we may end up highly regretting trying to push ourselves to that next stage in our back-bending ability. So why can’t we just leave backbends out of our practice then? Do I have to torture myself my forcing my back to move into what seems like this un-natural position every class? Can’t I just skip them and move right into those lovely forward bends that feel so nourishing and restorative? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Why? Because it is said to maintain the healthiest body possible, we must be able to (and do) move our spines in all 4 directions: forward, side to side, twisting, and back.
The good news is, we can learn how to backbend properly to avoid pain and discomfort and actually improve the health of our spine! What? YES. It is possible! I am one of those people who definitely does not have a naturally gifted backbend, and have had to learn the hard way about how going to deep can make you instantly regret it. But, through my personal exploration of backbending, along with the many workshops and trainings I have attended, I have learned ways to prepare my body and ease my way into my backbends so they not only are not painful, but they are done safely and actually can feel good.
Lets start by looking at the anatomy of what muscles need to be 1) engaged/active (red) and 2) stretched/open (blue) in order to do a backbend. The muscles that are activated are the muscles along the back of the body: rhomboids, trapezius, hamstrings, and other muscles throughout the back (seen in picture right). The muscles that need to be stretched and open are along the front side of the body: the triceps and pectoris minor (in the front of the chest and arms), your core muscles, and your hip flexors (such as psoas and tensor fascia lata). BUT, there is one tricky muscle that we always tend to forget about, and that is because it is not one or the other of these, it is both active and stretched at the same time. That set of muscles are the quadriceps. While most of these are working to press the hips up and stabilize the legs, there is one which runs over the hip joint which must be open and stretched in order to do a proper backbend. If this is not stretched properly, it will pull your pelvis into forward tilt, and crunch your low back. Sound familiar?
There are simple ways to stretch and prepare all these muscles for a deep backbend such as urdvha dhanurasana. To open the chest and arm muscles (pec minor and triceps) you can do poses like downward facing puppy pose, pressing the chest and armpits down toward the floor as much as you can. You can also do simple tricep stretches by lifting both arms straight up, bend one elbow so the hand points down the back, and use the other hand to draw the opposite elbow in and down (top half of gomukasana arms). Dolphin is another good pose, coming down to the forearms, keeping the elbows and hands at shoulder width, and then with your hips and legs in a downward dog position continue to press your chest back towards your upper thighs. Now for those tricky hip flexors… to open the hip flexors and that one pesky quadricep, the best option is to do a low lunge. While in your low lunge (back knee on the ground) keep bringing the weight forward as much as possible, making sure the knee doesnt pass the ankle. To add to this even more, bring your hands up to your front thigh, then reach back with the same arm for whatever foot is extended back, drawing the foot towards the glutes while continuing to lunge forward.
Activating the proper muscles pretty much comes naturally, but if you want to work on strengthening them you can do a few things as well. To strengthen the back, lie on your stomach and do variations of cobra pose (lifting the chest and hands off of the mat so they hover) or locust pose (lifting the chest, arms, and legs off of the mat). Repeat coming up and down (5 breath intervals) a few times each day. The other muscle that needs to be very strong (which is also stretching in this case) is the triceps. You can do simple tricep dips or chatarungas to upward dog/cobra to help strengthen these.
The last few problems I want to talk about are more mechanical. The first one is letting the elbows come out too wide when pressing up into any backbend. The trick here is when you are lying on your back preparing to come up, place your hands, fingertips towards your feet palms on the ground, and then make sure your elbows are straight over your wrists. Then push up to the crown of your head, pause (only lightly put the weight onto your head) and draw the elbows in again, making sure they are over your wrists, then push up to the full pose.
The second one is the problem of not lengthening your spine by bringing your backbends more into the upper back as you press deeper. This usually happens when the shoulders are not open enough or stretched properly before going into full wheel (see above). One way to avoid this is when you are up in full wheel, press firmly into your feet to push your chest in the direction away from your feet. This should bring the bend higher up in the spine and avoid crunching in your lumbar. Look at the examples of two backbends above: the first one all of the bending is being pushed into the lumbar spine, causing an extreme angle in one area of the back. The second one the girl, although just as deep in a backbend, is pressing into her feet and pressing her chest backwards, creating a bend that is more equally distributed across the entire spine. The other way to help with this is called the “airbag effect.” This is done by engaging the abdominals when in any backbend. By doing this, the abdominals press down on your organs, which in turn press your organs into your spine, therefore flattening out the spine and creating more space between the vertebrae (see image below).
Doing all of these things should help you to be more successful at having an enjoyable, backbending experience. If you are more interested in the anatomy of the body in backbends, or in any yoga postures, I would HIGHLY recommend getting the books by Bandha Yoga called “The Key Muscles of Yoga” and “The Key Poses of Yoga” (available from amazon.com by clicking to the right). They have been made much more affordable and really make a difference in understanding how and why the body works the way it does. Good luck!