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The key to developing a fresh perspective on yoga backbends is not to think of them as bending your back, but as extending your spine. Practice with an intention to keep some length along your spinal column and space between the vertebrae.
Here is a sequence that will help you overcome backbend avoidance. This practice helps you open your heart, stretch muscles along the front of your body, activate the muscles of your core, and build strength to create a more joyful backbend practice.
When moving your spine in any end-range motion—such as when you can’t take your backbend any deeper—it’s always a good idea to warm up first. Cat-Cow is a position that allows you to move your spine while incorporating breath and movement.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
An integral part of getting into deep backbends such as Wheel is developing flexibility in the muscles along the front of your hips. Low Lunge stretches the hip flexors (especially the iliopsoas complex) and prepares you to move deeper into backbends without straining your back.
Practicing this Lunge with your back knee up allows you to engage your gluteal and quadricep strength, which helps provide stability in deeper backbends. You can hold a strap in both hands and pull wide to open your shoulders as well. This helps increase the shoulder mobility that a pose such as Wheel requires.
Goddess Pose stretches the hip adductors while strengthening the quadriceps and glutes. It also stretches the muscles along the front of your chest. This makes it an ideal posture to prepare you for Urdhva Dhanurasana!
Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
When we think of backbends, we often think solely of the lower back. However, the thoracic spine, which has 12 vertebrae, does some heavy lifting as well. Fish Pose focuses on extension in the thoracic spine, and can also be done in a supported restorative version for more extension and less strain.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Bridge Pose is one of those posture that helps you understand that a backbend is really a back extension. While your head and shoulders stay stationary, your hips lift, naturally lengthening your back. This is also another great demonstration of how leg strength, specifically in the hamstrings and glutes, improves stability and the range of motion that allows you to extend your spine.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Wheel Pose, also known as Upward-Facing Bow, is the quintessential shape when we think about backbends. However, it is important to remember that there are plenty of variations of Wheel. If you have tender wrists, ask a partner to lend their ankles for you to hold on to. Also, it takes time to build shoulder, chest, and hip flexibility, as well as the leg strength you need to push up into this pose. Take your time, remember it’s a practice, and don’t forget to breathe!
After backbending, it is helpful to move into gentle twists, giving the intervertebral discs some relief. Gentle twisting is also a great way to relax spinal muscles after the work they’ve done holding us up in backbends.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Coming into Savasana to bring your spine into a neutral position. It is not unusual to feel some mild achiness in your spinal muscles after backbending, especially if you are new to the practice. Placing a rolled blanket under your knees is a great way to take any strain off your back and to relax the muscles in the lumbar region.
About Our Contributors
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.
Model Ayana Patel is a dancer, yogi, and a pre-med student at University of Washington, Seattle. A lifelong advocate for celebrating the unique abilities and inclusion of all people, she is the author of the book Pacey the Peacock: A Story Celebrating Differences and the Importance of Inclusion.