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Better Backbends

One simple alignment technique and three common poses to ensure pain-free backbends.

By Jason Crandell

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When backbends feel good, they feel very, very good: They leave you feeling energized, expansive, even joyful. But when they feel bad, well, you can fill in the rest. Think compressed, crunchy lower back, sacral pain, neck strain.

To make your backbends feel good more often, one of the most valuable things you can do is to initiate the bend by tilting your pelvis backward in a posterior tilt and lightly drawing your lower abdomen back. When you learn to align your pelvis and engage your abdomen this way, it helps you to keep your lower back long and compression free.

Yoga props can help you reinforce this skillful action. In this column, you will discover some creative ways to incorporate props into your next backbend practice. The depth and comfort you experience will help you fall in love and stay in love with these postures for a very long time.

The Goal: Learn the correct pelvic and abdominal actions in backbends. Doing so will decompress your lower back and allow the other parts of your backbend to flourish.

The Anatomy: The lumbar spine (lower back) is relatively more mobile than the thoracic spine (upper back). It's also naturally concave. These qualities make it easier to move the lower back into spinal extension (backbend) than the upper back. As a result, we often overarch the lower back in backbends, while the upper back remains stiff.

The Solution: Focus on initiating every backbend with a backward tilt of the pelvis. Draw the frontal hip points up, draw your lower belly back, and lengthen the tailbone toward the heels to decompress your spine as you bend.

Warm-Up

To do a posterior pelvic tilt in backbends, your hip flexors and quadriceps need to be open. Start with 5 to 7 Sun Salutations with High and Low Lunges. For a deeper opening, you can also do a Low Lunge with your back shin up against a wall. As you begin to feel more open, slowly draw your hips back toward the wall into King Arthur's Pose.

Sequence Notes: Repeat each pose 2 to 3 times in a row. Once you get a feel for using the props, it becomes easier to focus on how they support and enhance the posterior tilt.

Bhujangasana I: Cobra Pose

Propping: Place a bolster or Three Minute Egg (egg-shaped foam block) beneath your abdominals.

Why This Works: It supports the abdomen, keeping the low back long.

How to: The goal for this variation is to stimulate more engagement in your lower abdominal muscles as you do Cobra Pose. Place your bolster or two "eggs" vertically in the middle of your mat. Lie face-down on the bolster so that the bottom edge is nestled just above your pubic bone and between each hip point. The bolster should not be in direct contact with any bony portion of your pelvis. If you have a narrow pelvis, the bolster might be too wide, in which case you can use two Three Minute Eggs (as we've used in our photos) or a blanket. (Fold the blanket like an accordion and roll up one end until it is the same height as a standard bolster.)

Once you are situated, place your hands on the floor, aligning your fingertips with the center of your chest. Press down through your hands and begin to lift the front of your chest, shoulders, and head into Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). As you rise into the pose, feel the prop pressing against your lower abdomen. Allow the prop to help you draw your lower abdomen toward your spine, which will help you elongate your lower back.

Deepen the rest of your posture by hugging your elbows toward your sides, firming the bottom tips of your shoulder blades against your back, and encouraging your entire spine to move forward and up. Relax your temples, forehead, and jaw while taking 3 to 5 breaths. To release the pose, slowly lower the rest of your front body down to your bolster and turn your head to one side.

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana: Upward-Facing Dog Pose

Propping: Elevate your hands on blocks.

Why This Works: Elevating your hands will provide you with better leverage to initiate the proper pelvic tilt.

How to: Set your blocks at their lowest height on the front edge of your sticky mat, shoulder-width apart. Come onto all fours, your hands on the blocks and your knees slightly behind your hips. Stay in this tabletop position and tilt your pelvis as though you were initiating Cat Pose. Isolate the movement in your lower back: As you round, feel how your abdomen engages and your tailbone slightly tucks. Lift the front rim of your pelvis up and away from your thighs.

Keeping your pelvis in a posterior tilt, move it forward and down until it is hovering a few inches above the floor. Keep your arms straight and come into Upward-Facing Dog by pressing down through the base of your toes, lifting your knees off the floor, and engaging your thighs. Root down through the base of your fingers and draw your spine into backbend. Support the backbend in your upper body by firming your shoulder blades against your upper back. Ideally, you'll feel an even arc along the whole length of the spine.

Take 3 to 5 smooth breaths; then lower your knees to the floor. Sit back on your heels to release the pose.

Dhanurasana I: Bow Pose

Propping: Place a bolster horizontally underneath your lower abdomen.

Why This Works: It keeps the front rim of your pelvis lifted and your low back long. The support of the bolster makes it easier to lift your chest and open your upper back.

How to: Place a bolster horizontally across the middle of your sticky mat. Lie face-down over the bolster so that your hip points touch the edge of the bolster that's nearest to you. Place your forearms on the floor as though you were doing Sphinx Pose.

The placement of the bolster is key in this variation, and you'll sense whether you're in the right spot when you come all the way into the pose. If your hips are too far back on the bolster, you won't feel that the bolster is helping you rock your pelvis in the appropriate direction. If your hips are too far forward on the bolster, you'll topple forward once you hold your ankles in Bow Pose.

Follow the cue that you are receiving from the bolster and gently engage your abdominal wall; this will help you continue tilting your pelvis backward. Exhale, bend your knees, and reach back to hold the front of your ankles. If you feel yourself falling forward, simply adjust your position on the bolster.

Observe the deep opening of your chest and shoulders while your lower back arches mildly. Although it may be challenging to breathe as your diaphragm presses the bolster, take 3 to 5 breaths before releasing the pose.

Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.

October 2011

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