Bend It Like This: Backbends
Deep, full backbends can be satisfying, exhilarating, and liberating, but they don't always come easily. And that's not surprising. A completely expressed backbend requires unrestricted movement of dozens of joints and proper balancing of all their movements. Even if you bend back easily, the joints of your lower back and neck most likely move more freely than the ones in your upper back, hips, and shoulders. That's just how the body is designed. So if you're not careful, you can end up overworking your lower back and neck and causing compression and pain. Even if you don't have this problem, you probably still have some stiffness in your hips or shoulders (or both) and at least one chronically stuck spot in your upper back.
The solution to these difficulties is simple: props. To understand how they can help, think of a bicycle chain that has a rusty pair of links. If you grab the chain a foot or two on either side of the rusted links and try to free them by moving your hands toward each other, you won't have much luck. The other links will wiggle, but the frozen ones won't. If you've got a stuck pair of vertebrae in your upper back, you're in a similar predicament when you try to free them by bringing your hands and feet closer to one another in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward- Facing Bow). The stuck spot remains stuck, while other vertebrae move too much. The same principle holds true when you try to free tight hips or shoulders: Everything moves except the stuck spot.
But imagine draping the chain over a strongly braced horizontal steel rod, creating a fulcrum at the junction of the rusted links. If you grasp the chain on either side of the frozen place and pull down, chances are you'll loosen the links. Props can help you do a similar thing in backbends. They let you apply controlled force to specific, difficult-to-isolate places and allow gravity to work in your favor. They can also help you focus your attention and hold poses longer than you could otherwise.
All Propped Up
Here's a backbend sequence that uses three simple props—a mat, a block, and a chair—to prepare your shoulders, hips, and upper back for a challenging unpropped backbend, Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose). If the thought of bending backward over a hard edge makes you cringe, remember that your muscles, not your bones, press into the props. You can pad the chair or block with a few layers of sticky mat, but don't overdo it; the cleaner the edge of the prop, the better you can focus the action of the pose.
Before starting this sequence, practice a few poses to wake up your hips, spine, and shoulders, including Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Pincha Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), and a variety of standing poses, especially Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I).
In this pose, maintain your normal spinal curves: lower back curving slightly in, upper back curving slightly out.
Kneel facing a chair. (If you wish, cushion your knees with a folded blanket.) Holding a block, place the tips of your elbows on the edge of the chair seat, shoulder width apart or slightly narrower. (Keep as little of your elbows on the seat as possible without slipping off.) Place one palm on each end of the block; keep your wrists that same distance apart, and don't let them collapse in toward each other. This wider wrist position rotates your upper arms away from one another, aligning the upper arm and shoulder bones so they don't pinch the tendons that run across the tops of the shoulder joints.
Next, bend your elbows until your forearms are vertical. Place your knees directly underneath your hip joints, then walk them an inch or two farther from the chair. Draw your pelvis away from the chair as far as you can, stretching your entire spine and shoulder girdle to their maximum length. As you do this, your elbows and shoulder blades should stay where they are, but your ribcage and spine should glide horizontally underneath them. This moves your neck and head away from the chair and draws your shoulders toward your ears. (This action may seem counter to some yoga instruction you've heard, but you need to maximize it to fully flex your shoulders.) Keep your shoulder blades apart, relax at the base of your neck, and let your outer shoulder blades move closer to your head than your inner shoulder blades.
When you've moved your pelvis back as far as possible, your hip joints should be directly above your knees. (If they aren't, move your knees directly under your hips.) Your head should be clear of the chair and able to release toward the floor. If your forehead touches the chair, it may be because you have tight shoulders; more likely, either your elbow tips aren't close enough to the chair edge or your shoulder blades aren't close enough to your ears.
Use an exhalation to draw your pelvis back again, further elongating your spine and shoulder girdle. Soften the muscles in your neck; then, without letting your lower ribs or spine sag, release your armpits toward the floor. Hold this position for a minute or more, breathing softly and releasing your armpits down. Then bend your elbows completely and touch the block to your back to give your upper arms a good stretch. Hold this position for a few breaths before coming out of the pose.
Eka Pada Supta Virasana
This pose opens your front thighs and groins. To set up, lie on your back with your knees bent, the soles of your feet on the mat, and your block within reach. Lift your hips and stand the block on end underneath your pelvis with the broader dimension of the ends perpendicular to your sacrum. Then settle the lower portion of your sacrum, the part nearer your tailbone, onto the block. (If the block is too close to your lower back, you'll have a harder time tilting your sitting bones up to increase the stretch at the front of your hip.)
Use your hand to draw your left foot as far toward your head as possible, turning the foot over so the top is on the floor. Position your left knee so the thighbone extends straight out from the hip socket. Also, make sure your toes don't point in underneath your body; instead, keep your left foot pointing back, in line with your left shin. Place your hands palm-up on the floor alongside your body.
With an exhalation, press your left knee firmly down and to the right, contract the base of both buttocks slightly, press your right foot into the floor, and tilt your pelvis so your sitting bones move up and the top rim of your pelvis moves down. Release at the front of your left thigh and groin. Hold this position for a minute or more, reinforcing the actions on each exhalation. To come out of the pose, use your left hand to help bring your left foot to its original position mirroring your right foot, then repeat the pose on the other side.
Paryankasana on a Block
This pose is seldom taught, but it's a great way to open your upper back and chest.
First, come into Virasana (Hero Pose): Kneel and set your pelvis between your feet, keeping your knees in line with your hip sockets and your feet pointing back in line with your shins, as you did with the stretching leg in Eka Pada Supta Virasana. If you can't comfortably bring your sitting bones to the floor, sit on a block or a folded blanket. Just make sure the support does not interfere with the block you're going to backbend over.
Stand your backbend block on end behind you, with its narrow edge facing you. Lean back and put your hands on the floor behind you, fingers pointing forward. Then lie back and rest your spine on the block, positioning yourself so the block's corners nearest your hips press into your back between the lower tips of your shoulder blades or slightly lower.
Next, place your palms on your feet and your elbows on the floor, tuck your chin toward your chest, and lift your hips off the floor. Keeping your hips high and your chin tucked, roll your chest open by pushing your hands down on your feet and your elbows down on the floor. Still keeping your chin tucked and the back of your neck long, move the back of your head and top of your shoulders straight toward the floor as far as you can; then lift your chin and let your head hang all the way back. With your hips still elevated, raise your arms overhead. Cross your forearms, wrapping each palm around the back of the opposite upper arm just above the elbow. Hold firmly, and let your arms hang.
On an exhalation, without letting your arms, shoulders, or head rise, bend your back more as you lower your hips to the floor. Let the arc of your spine deepen over the block, releasing your chest and abdomen into the stretch as your hips descend. Lead the hip movement with your sitting bones and place them down as far away as possible from your knees. Hold this final position for about one minute more, if possible—bending back more deeply with each exhalation.
To come out of the pose, place your arms on the floor by your torso, push down with your elbows, and sit up in one smooth action; lead with your chest and keep your head hanging back until the very end of the movement.
Repeat Paryankasana on the block at least twice more, each time moving the block about an inch closer to your waist. Don't place the block under your lower back, though, as that will cause excessive bending there.
Kapotasana With a Chair
The chair can help you focus on each part of the body needed for backbending, and then bring all that work together to create this pose.
Sit facing the back of the chair with the soles of your feet on the floor. Holding the chair, lean back and slide your pelvis forward so you can lie down and place the lower tips of your shoulder blades just off the edge of the seat. (Experiment to find the position that works best for you.)
This next sequence of movements will elongate and protect your lower back and intensify the effects of the pose on your hips, upper back, chest, and shoulders. First, lift your pelvis, tilt your sitting bones toward the ceiling, and place your pelvis back down on the seat, so you rest as much of your weight as possible on the upper part of your buttocks and less on the lower part. Then do a partial sit-up to lengthen your lower back: Lift your back ribcage off the seat, move it horizontally toward your head, and then place it back on the seat as far away as possible from your pelvis. As you continue in the pose, maintain downward pressure on your upper buttocks and the back of your ribcage to resist their tendency to slide toward each other.
To open your upper back fully, first tuck your chin toward your chest; then, keeping it tucked, draw the tops of your shoulders and the back of your head toward the floor, puffing out your chest like a pigeon. When you can't bring your head down any farther without raising your chin, gradually let your chin lift, opening your chest more and moving your shoulders farther down as your neck bends back. Finally, let your head hang freely for a few breaths.
Next, tuck your feet under the chair, placing them on the floor, toenails down. Move your feet apart until your outer ankles press the inside of the chair legs, and keep them there throughout the pose.
Now you need to adjust your position on the chair. If you don't, you'll slide too far off the seat toward your head when you take your arms overhead to move into the full pose. To prevent this, shift your weight toward your knees so you'll overbalance slightly in that direction before you bring your arms overhead.
When you've adjusted your position on the chair, bend your elbows and pass your hands close to your ears as you reach toward the floor. (If you stretch your arms straight out, you'll overbalance toward your head.) Place your palms on the floor, fingers pointing toward the chair and as close to it as possible. If you're flexible enough, grip the chair's front legs with your hands.
Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, press into the floor with the tops of your feet, draw your knees toward each other, lift your groins diagonally up and away from your chest, lift your chest diagonally up and away from your groins, and draw your elbows toward each other. Inhale again, then exhale softly, letting out as much air as you can without contracting your abdominal muscles or dropping your ribs. Continue breathing this way, expanding your backbend with each exhalation. Stay for one minute or more.
To come out of the pose, bring your hands up and grip the back of the chair. Carefully release your feet from under the chair one at a time. Adjust your position so you can press your elbows firmly into the chair seat, then sit up in one smooth movement, leading with your chest and bringing your head upright just as your body arrives at a vertical position.
To come into this pose, kneel upright, with your knees slightly less than hip width apart and your hips, shoulders, and head stacked directly above your knees. Place your hands on the back of your pelvic rim.
On an inhalation, tuck your chin toward your chest and move your head and shoulders back as far as you can without taking your hips forward; draw your upper spine forward and lift your chest high, leading with your lower breastbone. When your chest is maximally lifted, use an exhalation to gradually lift your chin and let your head release back.
Before you arch all the way back and place your head and hands on the floor in one smooth exhalation, bring your palms together in front of your breastbone in prayer position. Then reinforce the lift of your chest as you exhale and let the backbend travel down your spine in a wave from top to bottom. Separate your hands and reach them past your ears toward the ground. Bring your hips forward enough to counterbalance your backward movement. Bend your knees as little as possible, keeping your hips high as you approach the floor. Place your palms on the mat, fingers pointing toward your feet, and bring the top of your head to the floor.
Press your palms down and lift your head off the floor and your hips high, opening your groins as much as possible. Keeping this height, lengthen and bend your upper back more and walk your hands to your feet. If possible, grip your ankles (or, if you're very flexible, your calves). Draw your elbows toward each other until they're shoulder width apart, and anchor them firmly on the mat. Bend your neck and place your forehead on the floor.
Take a full inhalation to expand your chest; then, exhaling softly but thoroughly, press your shins and forearms down to lift your groins and chest high and move them strongly away from one another.
Let all the areas you prepared with the props—your shoulders, hip joints, and upper back—soften and open for a full, smooth, clean backbend from your knees to your elbows. Hold the pose for 30 seconds or longer, opening into it more with each exhalation.
A research scientist and Iyengar-certified yoga teacher, Roger Cole, Ph.D., specializes in human anatomy and the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. For more information, visit rogercoleyoga.com.