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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)
1. Explore hip extension (i.e., lifting the legs) in Ardha Salabhasana (Half Locust Pose)
Place a bolster lengthwise on your mat, and lie down with your pelvis and chest on the bolster, placing a block under your forehead if need be. Point your toes and place the tops of your feet on the floor. Straighten your legs, lifting your thighs away from the floor, calves and inner thighs working. Play with lifting one leg at a time to hip height, keeping the pelvis neutral. If that’s comfortable, try both legs simultaneously.
Then play with lifting the leg higher than the hip—without moving into your low back. Moving slowly, paying close attention to whether or not you experience a change in your low back (and if your knees want to bend). If your low back is forced down toward the bolster, or you feel pain in your low back, groins, or sitting bones, back off the height and stay in neutral. Discover what it’s like to fire up the muscles that extend the hip without compromising your spine.
2. Explore backline work by finding Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Now move forward on your bolster, so that the front of your chest is off the bolster and rest your forehead on the floor if it’s okay with your neck. With the toes curled under this time stabilize your legs, firming your thighs, calves, glutes, and quads. Lengthen your arms alongside your body and play with lifting the head and chest up into neutral, finding some semblance of Tadasana. Go up and down a few times, notice the work in your upper back and neck that it takes to lift the head. Feel free to explore other arm variations. If it hurts your neck, back, sacroiliac joints, or around the base of your ribs, consider skipping this one.
See also Prop Up Your Practice
3. Explore contralateral movement in Salabhasana (Locust Pose).
Now that you’ve explored the components of lifting the legs and chest, experiencing the backline work and paying close attention to any changes in your low back or sensations that may be unwise and counterproductive, you can play with all of the Salabhasana variations using the bolster as your floor.
With your arms lengthened out in front, palms turned in (feel free to take them as wide as necessary), and your legs straight with the tops of your feet on the floor (firing up all of the same stability muscles as before), lift your head and chest to the height you found before. Press down through the top of your left foot and lift your right leg to hip height, as you do, press the outer edge of your right hand down and lift your left arm up to shoulder height. Play with finding stability before lowering the limbs and trying the opposite side. As you go back and forth, paying close attention to your sensory experience, you can explore lifting your limbs higher and backing off when you detect movement in your low back.
See also A Gentle Yoga Sequence for Back Pain
4. Explore a lower Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose).
Lying with the tops of your thighs and pubic bone on the bolster, point your toes and place the tops of your feet on the floor. Straighten and stabilize your legs, lifting your knees away from the floor and firing your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and thighs. Place your hands under your shoulders. Firmly press down through your palms and lift your chest, neck and head to the Tadasana position. Feel the entire backline of your body working.
Explore creating more lengthen in the spine as you begin to lift your shoulder heads higher from the floor, pulling your sternum forward. Keep your neck and head in line with the rest of your spine, as best you can, and notice if any counterproductive sensation in your back, SI joints, groins, shoulders, or neck. Back off as necessary.
See also Practice Safe Stretch in Cobra
5. Explore the actions of Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
Moving forward on the bolster so that more of your thighs are supported, straighten your arms down alongside your body, taking them as wide as you need to feel supported. Engaging the entire backline of your body, straighten your legs and lift your head and chest away from the floor. Begin to bend your knees, without flexing your spine, and play with flexing and pointing the ankles. Explore what it’s like to not grab your feet in Bow Pose. Where do you feel the work? And, again, if you have pain in your low back, SI joints, butt, groins, shoulders, or neck, try staying lower until you find the range of motion that is wise for your body—perhaps not doing it at all, surrendering to the understanding that it’s not wise for your body right now.
6. Explore the front-line release of a Standing Backbend.
Fold your mat in half and place the bolster back on it lengthwise. Place a blanket on the floor on one end and a block on the other. Lie with your butt and upper back on the bolster, back of the head on a block, and place your feet flat on the blanket. Start with your arms down by your side, and explore pressing your feet away from your torso in and out a few times, allowing the legs to go wide and feet to turn out as necessary. Notice if straightening the legs changes anything in your low back, keeping the knees bent as necessary. Then begin to take the arms up overhead, and if it doesn’t hurt your neck, shoulders, or back, you can try removing the block from under your head. Explore the sensations of release in the frontline of the body.
See also Upward Bow (Wheel) Pose
7. Explore Crescent Lunge Pose.
Start with your back on the bolster, back of head on a block, and knees bent with your feet flat on the blanket. Pick you left foot up off the floor, bending the knee to roughly 90 degrees with the shin parallel to the floor. Again play with pointing and flexing the toes, noticing where you feel the difference in your legs. Slowly begin to press your right foot away on the blanket, bringing it in and out a few times. If you experience a pain deep in the groin or low back, don’t slide the blanket out as far. The bottom leg may very well not straighten out without pulling on the low back, in which case keep it bent. As you’re ready, take your arms up overhead into a Crescent Lunge–like shape. If it doesn’t hurt your neck, shoulders, or back, you can try removing the block out from underneath your head. Explore the sensations of release in the frontline of the body. And try the other side.
8. Explore pressing up into Urdva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose).
Without a mat, place the bolster lengthwise on a blanket perpendicular to a wall and a second blanket in front of the bolster. Lie with your upper back and hips on the bolster with your head near the wall and your feet on the blanket in front of the bolster. Bend your elbows and place your palms on the wall above you. Explore taking the hands higher and wider until you find the appropriate placement for your neck and shoulders. Paying attention to the sensory experience, begin to press into your hands and straighten your elbows, feeling the muscles of your arms fire up. If it hurts your neck or shoulders, or does something in your spine, don’t press as hard.
See also Reinvent Your Wheel
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.