I have a confession. I often avoid backbends. As a student of yoga, I shy away from them in my practice. As a teacher of yoga, I tend to leave them out of my class plans. This aversion never quite made sense because I am fairly flexible and have enough strength to perform even some of the most challenging backbending poses. So what, exactly, holds me back (pun intended)?
I decided to take another look at my backbending practice to understand what I was resisting. For a full month, I practiced daily backbends—taking an especially deep dive into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose). I wanted to understand why I—and, by extension, many of us—might avoid this essential part of any yoga practice. I discovered six possible reasons for backbend avoidance:
6 reasons you might be avoiding backbends
1. You have tight hips and shoulders
Difficulty in backbends doesn’t necessarily stem from having an inflexible back. Tight hips and shoulder joints can limit the range of motion necessary to access certain backbends such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) or Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose). If the range of motion isn’t sufficient in the four “corners” of your body—your shoulders and hips—your lower back will take the brunt of the extension, causing discomfort. Consider working on gentle shoulder and hip opening before trying to access deeper backbends that feel challenging to you.
2. Your leg muscles may be weak
Your legs play an important role in creating and sustaining backbends like Wheel Pose. Lifting your body into Urdhva Dhanurasana without adequate leg strength puts an incredible burden on your arms. Strong legs are also important in raising the pelvis into Bridge Pose. To ground the tops of your feet in poses such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) you must employ the big muscles close to your hip joints. Building leg strength sets the foundation for success in challenging backbending poses.
3. You’re trying to backbend when you’re already tired
It makes sense that backbends are generally sequenced at the end of a yoga class. When your body is warmed up, your back tends to move more freely. However, at the end of class, you may be sweaty and tired and just not have the strength to press into a backbend.
If you are a yoga teacher, consider sequencing the practice to include backbending variations in the middle of class, rather than at a point when students are exhausted. If you are a yoga student, allow yourself to rest before you press into a backbend or opt for a pose that targets your back in a gentler way.
4. You move too quickly into counter poses
In some yoga classes, backbends are immediately followed by forward bends. We’re taught that every pose should be followed by a counter pose, but in this case such sequencing can strain the intervertebral discs. In a backbend, the compression from the vertebrae causes the intervertebral discs to be pushed forward. Moving too abruptly from a backbend into a forward bend then forces the discs backward, which can cause strain. Instead, consider a side stretch or a gentle twist before counter-posing with the forward bend.
5. They introduce an element of fear
Unlike our grade-school teachers, most of us don’t have eyes in the back of our heads. Backbends can be intimidating when we can’t see the space behind us or the ground below us in relation to where we are suspended in space. Additionally, some backbends—including Wheel, Bridge, and Camel—require us to reach our head back and down. Inverting in this way can make us feel off balance and introduce an element of fear. Practicing these poses with props and a spotter can help bring more confidence into your backbending practice.
6. We have a one-dimensional view of backbends
Consider the fact that not all backbends are accessed the same way. So if you avoid backbends because you don’t feel confident arching back into an inversion where your heart is above your head, consider Natarajasana (Dancer). It creates the same shape in the back of your body, but allows you to remain upright. Practice Sphinx, Upward-Facing Dog, or Bow, which begin with you lying on your abdomen, yet have the same shape as Wheel.
Some back bending poses to try
When you’re ready to add some backbends into your yoga practice, you have plenty of options to choose from. Begin with some gentle back extensions and work your way up to more intense asanas. Here are a few to consider.
Bitilasana (Cow Pose)
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Uttana Shishosana (Puppy Pose)
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Camatkarasana (Wild Thing)
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose II)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Kapotasana (King Pigeon)
About Our Contributor
Ingrid Yang is an internal medicine physician, yoga therapist, and author of Adaptive Yoga and Hatha Yoga Asanas. Dr. Yang has been teaching yoga for more than 20 years and leads trainings and retreats all over the world, with a special focus on kinesthetic physiology and healing through breathwork, meditation and mind-body connection. Find out more at www.ingridyang.com or on Instagram. Read more about her here.