In her Yoga Physics course “Deconstruct to Reconstruct” this summer, Alexandria Crow has been showing students how to look at other people’s skeletal structures (as well as their own), measuring various ranges of motions in all of the joints on both sides of the body, and then analyzing the findings in comparison to the classical representation of the asanas. What they are discovering is that many people don’t have the ranges of motion required to align some of the most common yoga poses, and the ones that do are often those who can ask their joints to go beyond functional ranges of motion (something that probably shouldn’t be exploited).
Modern Bodies and Backbends
Recently they deconstructed backbends, which require a certain degree of hip extension. A degree a lot of modern bodies don’t have. Crow explained that there are many people actually stuck in a bit of hip flexion (slightly hinged forward at the hips) due to a line of tension in the front of the body (mainly the psoas muscles) that doesn’t allow for full hip extension. They can’t even come into a neutral hip position let alone extend past neutral. In order to do a backbend then, something—some other joint in the body (usually the sacroiliac)—has to give or be compromised.
For every person who’s obsessed with backbends (the deeper, the better), there is an equal number of people who utterly despise them. They don’t feel good no matter what in some people’s bodies (those whose skeletal system simply aren’t able to create those shapes). Yet they do them over and over again.
For Crow, whose exaggerated lumbar curve (which is just how her spine happens to be shaped) pushes her hips into flexion, backbending was painful—especially belly down on the floor poses. Knowing many of her students had the same experience (and that a lot of bodies are stuck in some degree of hip flexion), she began deconstructing the poses and looking more closely at the sensory experience created in backbends.
What IS a backbend, really?
As she broke it all down, she realized that in every pose you’re activating or attempting to activate a certain group of muscles, asking the opposing set of muscles to release, and/or attempting stabilize the two groups. “It’s a sensory experience in many ways, as well as a concentration experience. In order to do that, you have to give focal points of concentration and then choices around them,” Crow explains. “If the sensory experience created in a backbend is backline work and frontline release, then create that without having to put somebody’s skeleton in the position of a backbend, especially a deep one; create the same opportunity for sensation where the likelihood of pain is less and easier to escape and takes one’s personal range and joint positions into account.”
In other words, you don’t need to put your body into an extreme shape to experience the sensations of a backbend. You can activate and work all of the same muscles along the back of the body, and invite the opposing front-body muscles to release without have to go into extension. To do that, Crow began using a bolster to change the relationship of students’ bodies to the floor and allow for varying degrees of hip flexion. Through this process she came up with some innovative ways to explore the sensations of backbends without compromising any part of the spine (especially for those who feel it in their low backs).
Here, 8 ways to use a bolster to make better sense out of backbends in your body. As you move, pay attention to the ways you work the backline of your body and how the front body is invited to release—as well as sensations that feel counterproductive. If it hurts, it’s counterproductive. Back off.
And remember it isn’t about the shape (height or depth), but the sensory experience you’re having in the pose. It’s a mindful activity! How consumed can you become with noticing how your body moves and works?
8 Ways to Use a Bolster to Explore Backbends
YOU’LL NEED a yoga bolster, blanket, and potentially a block (if you’re tall like me)
About Our Writer
Meagan McCrary is a 500 E-RYT and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in life. She’s the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga, an encyclopedia of modern yoga systems, as well as a contributor at yogajournal.com. Living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at various Equinox Sports Clubs and at Wanderlust Hollywood.