Depending on your relationship to backbends, they could be an invigorating, transcendent, heart-opening experience or they are a struggle to be avoided at all costs. Maybe, like me, they’ve been both in the course of your evolving practice. Whether your face lights up or you groan in anticipation of backbends, there is no question that these asanas consistently present a clear opportunity to practice the core tenets of yoga: Honor your body; Let go of attachments; Be where you are; Breathe.
Most of us know that forcing ourselves cold into a deep backbend like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Full Wheel Pose) can cause serious strain and injury. Instead, we should consciously warm up our shoulders, spine, wrists, and hip flexors, methodically readying our bodies and minds for deeper openings, breathing steadily and honing our focus as we journey inward.
But what happens afterwards? Do we come out of this exhilarating peak and immediately check out—cooling down while our mind races ahead to what’s for dinner and the next thing to check off the to-do list? How can we be just as intentional post-wheel, and, mindfully, keep our spine healthy so that we can continue our yoga practice for years to come?
Deepen Your Awareness in Backbends
For many of us, the careful attention and steady ease we cultivate in our practice falls to the wayside once we start coveting the glorious arc of a deeper pose. On the way there, we forget to practice non-attachment to outcomes in order to be where we are. We strive and achieve and reach the peak of the mountain and forget to honor not only the steps that got us there, but also the ones that will lead us onward as we continue along the path. It’s easy to confuse the destination for the journey and we forget to hold space for transitions and to be grateful for each step along the way.
But this is yoga, and we always have an opportunity to strengthen our self-awareness and cultivate new patterns. We practice on the mat so that we can bring our practice off the mat as well.
After an exhilarating series of backbends, let us dedicate just as much time to the role of unwinding from them as we do warming up for them. We can work to maintain a healthy spine and avoid the dangers of moving from a deep backbend swiftly into a counterpose in the opposite direction.
Smarter Post-Peak Backbends
With Urdhva Dhanurasana for example, it can be tempting to come down and immediately hug knees to chest (Apanasana) afterwards, which is a sequence commonly cued in many classes. You may notice an ache in your lower back when you do this. This is because you are asking the spine to hinge from one extreme to another by taking a deep forward fold right after a deep backbend.
A front body example is moving from Dhanurasana immediately into Balasana (Child’s Pose.) If your practice included a series of backbends held over several breaths, or especially if you’re coming from an all-day backbending workshop, these types of sequences do not allow the vertebrae time to release back to neutral. Swinging from one extreme to another can cause muscle spasms as your body attempts to immediately adjust and decompress, and these hasty movements can ultimately lead to chronic pain in the sacral-lumbar area over time.
I love a good knees-to-chest hug as much as the next yogi, but here are some poses we can mindfully practice between Wheel and Apanasana that offer the spine time to stabilize and neutralize before moving on to the next pose.
Choose a combination of these restorative poses or practice the entire grounding sequence for a mindful, soothing post-Wheel cooldown.
Once you come down from Urdhva Dhanurasana, settle into Fallen Bridge, lying on your back, soles of the feet planted on the ground a little wider than your hips. Let your knees knock in to hold each other up. Keep your palms open with your arms along your side. Let your collarbones be wide and your shoulder blades rest on the floor. Hold for 3-5 breaths as you let your lower back neutralize and release. Feel the ground holding you up.
Supta Matsyendrasana, variation (Supine Spinal Twist)
Lying on your back with knees bent, soles of the feet on the ground, about hips distance or the width of the mat apart, open your arms into a T-shape on the floor, palms facing up. Let your knees fall to the right, keeping the left shoulder melting down into the floor as you twist. Hold for 3-5 breaths, then bring your knees back to center and to the other side. As you twist to the left, keep your right shoulder melting down. Hold for 3-5 breaths. You can also gently “windshield wiper” your knees slowly back and forth in this position if that feels better for your spine.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big Toe Pose)
From your back, bring your right knee towards your chest and extend your left leg out along the ground, keeping your hips even and the left foot flexed, energy moving down the inner line of the leg. Hold on to the back of your right thigh and extend your right leg so that it’s perpendicular to the ground, keeping a slight bend in your knee if your hamstrings are tight. Keeping the right leg extended at 90 degrees and not closer to the face allows the leg to settle back in with the pelvis. You can stay still or make small circles with the feet to massage your ankles. After 3-5 breaths, switch legs, then repeat on the other side.
Lying on your back with knees bent, place the soles of the feet on the floor about hip distance apart. Place your right ankle over your left knee, making a figure four with your legs. Flex your right foot and move your right knee forward while keeping hips even to find the stretch in your outer hip. Thread your right arm through your legs, interlacing fingers of both hands around the back of your left thigh.
Gently pull your left thigh towards you as you keep your head, shoulders, and back body relaxed and on the ground. Continue to flex your right foot, and let the back of your pelvis and hips sink towards the floor. If your head or shoulders strain and lift off the ground in this position, support your bottom foot with a block or lower it to the floor and rest arms by your side, continuing to flex the right foot and pressing the knee forward for the outer hip stretch. Hold for 3-5 breaths. Switch legs to repeat on the other side.
Supta Matsyendrasana, variation (Supine Spinal Twist)
Lying on your back with legs extended, take your arms shoulder height into a T-shape on the ground, palms facing up. Bend your right knee to place the right foot at the inside of the left thigh, and exhale as you drop the right knee over the left side of the body towards the ground, twisting to the left. Keep your chest wide and both shoulders flat on the floor, melting the right shoulder towards the ground. Take a 3-10 breaths here. Inhale to roll your hips back to center, exhale and extend the right leg down the mat. Switch legs to repeat on the other side.
Supta Baddha Konasana, variation (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Individually roll up two blankets or have two blocks or bolsters nearby. Place another folded up blanket on your mat to support and rest your head. Starting on your back with your head supported by the blanket, take your feet together, knees wide, forming a diamond shape with your legs with the outer edges of your feet on the floor. Place a rolled up or folded blanket, bolster, or block under each thigh to support and allow legs and pelvis to completely release down. Take arms by your side, palms facing up, back flat against the earth. Hold for 5 breaths and allow the body to completely let go.
Child’s Pose, variation (Reclining Child’s Pose)
Place a folded blanket on your mat that will go under your head for support, and make a big loop with your strap. From a seated position, step into the loop so that one side is behind your knees, and then lay down so you can loop the other side behind the back of your neck. Adjust the strap accordingly so that you can lay your head down on the blanket comfortably, while the strap holds your knees wide, close to your chest. Keep your arms by your side, palms facing up, back body and hips heavy on the ground. Close or soften your eyes and let your entire spine release in this supported position for 5-10 breaths.
Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)
From your back, bend your knees and hold on to the outer edges of your flexed feet as you pull your legs towards you, on either side of your ribcage. You can also hold on to the back of your thighs or use peace fingers to hook the big toes if grabbing the outer edges of your feet do not work for your body. Keep your legs at a 90 degree angle, shins perpendicular to the floor, and push your feet into your hands and hands into your feet, pulling legs towards the outside of your torso, keeping hips, lower back, and shoulders pressed into the ground. Find stillness or rock side to side to massage your back.
Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose)
Place a folded blanket or bolster 2-3 inches away from the wall, lengthwise. Make a medium-sized loop with your strap and place it within reach. Sit at the edge of one side of the blanket and use your hands and arms on the floor to gently lower yourself onto your back while swinging your legs up to extend on the wall. Settle your pelvis onto the blanket or bolster. Your sitting bones can be right against the wall or a few inches away from it, depending on the structure of your body.
Adjust the distance so that you can keep your legs extended with pelvis neutral and supported, letting the weight of your thigh bones and pelvis release towards the ground. Take the strap around your legs and tighten the loop around your thighs, holding your legs in place as they are also propped against the wall, letting you further release into the pose. Keep your chest broad and shoulder blades moving down and away from the spine, arms by your side, palms facing up. Close or soften your eyes and breathe. Stay for 3-20 minutes.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
For lower back release, place a rolled up blanket, bolster, or two blocks on the medium setting with a blanket over them under your knees and lay back into the final resting pose. Rest your arms by your sides, palms up, hands and feet falling away from your midline. Keep your head and spine in one line, easing your shoulder blades down your back. Place a folded blanket under your head for support and feel the back of your neck be long. Close or soften your eyes and find stillness as the ground holds you up. Scan your body for any holding places, releasing tension in your brow line or jaw. Breathe naturally. Hold for 30-60 seconds if practicing Savasana between poses or for 5 or more minutes when closing out a practice.