Early in my yoga journey, I found backbends scary and confronting. Over time, my relationship with these postures shifted to one of freedom and safety. Nowadays, I often find myself appreciating the spaciousness and lightness I can feel in these poses. While my overall experience changed from one shadowed by fear to an uplifting interlude, as both a yoga teacher and student, I understand how these poses can bring up complex physical and emotional sensations.
Tips to cultivate safety in backbends
1. Start small and build up to bigger backbends overtime. This step-by-step approach will help your body and mind learn to approach the challenge of a backbend with a sense of preparedness and confidence.
2. Focus on the foundation of the pose more than on the actual backbend itself. Take note of how steady your hands, feet, and any other points of contact you have with the ground are. This helps you deepen your sense of safety and groundedness in these poses. For example, in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), spread your fingers out wide and feel the full contact of your hands against your mat. Spread your toes and feel the three corners of your feet and even your toes hold you up. In Ustrasana (Camel Pose), bring your attention to your knees, shins, and the press of the top of your feet downward. Notice even your baby toe working to hold you steady during a moment of unease.
3. Utilize your vision and your breath to keep you calm. Pick steady points to gaze at with soft eyes—before, during, and after the backbend. Where you look and how you look informs your brain of how to react to a situation. If your eyes are darting around, your mind will feel frantic as well. Breathe evenly in and out of your nose. When your breath starts to feel short or like you need to pant, this is your sign to ease out of the backbend.
4. Practice in a space you feel safe in. Whether at home or a studio, make sure you feel supported in your practice location. This may mean choosing a spot near a wall or somewhere where you can see the whole room, being near an exit, or even layering up so that your body feels less exposed and less vulnerable.
5. Tune into how you feel in each moment. If your breath is short or you feel anxious in a backbend, this is your signal to take a step back. As you take time to build up your practice, your body and your mind will learn how to maintain a sense of balance and ease during these shapes. Keeping your breath steady helps control your nervous system and fosters homeostasis in your body. Breathing evenly in moments of discomfort on our mats helps us learn how to do so during the more difficult moments off our mats as well.
Poses to Transform Your Backbending Practice
Seated Spinal Twist
Sit in a simple cross-legged position with your right leg in front. Stretch your arms overhead as you breathe in. Breath out and twist to the right side. Place your left hand on your outer right thigh and your right hand behind you. Keep your back body broad and your neck long for 5 breaths. Come back to center and place your left leg in front. Breathe in and reach your arms up. Exhale and twist to the left. After 5 breaths, unravel back to center.
Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose)
Come to Tabletop and walk your hands forward to the top corners of your mat. Keep your hips over your knees and rest your forehead and chest on your mat or on a yoga prop. If your palms slip, you can grip the edges of your mat for support. Breathe into the upper back and peel your armpits open. Focus on the points of contact you have with the ground to help support you through the challenge of this shape. Hold for 5–10 breaths. To come out, press into your forearms and slide your hips forward to lay on your belly. Interlace your hands and rest your forehead on the backs on hands.
After resting your spine in neutral with your forehead against your hands, bring your elbows underneath your shoulders and turn your forearms to parallel. Spread your fingers and lightly press into your hands and forearms to broaden your chest and lift your collarbones. Keep your low belly and pubic bone on the ground and your legs in line with your hips. Press the tops of your feet into your mat and feel your heart lift from the support you have underneath you. Take 10 breaths here. To release, lower your chest and shoulders down and rest your forehead on the backs of your hands.
Lay on your belly and stretch your right arm out at shoulder height with palm facing down. Press your left hand down underneath left your shoulder. Use this press to help you roll onto the right side of your body. You can stagger or stack your legs, or for more sensation in the right shoulder, step your left foot behind the right leg. If the sensation is too much in the right shoulder, walk your right arm towards your hips. Come back through center. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Salabhasana, variation (Locust Pose)
Lay on your belly with your hands underneath your shoulders, palms down and fingertips facing forward. Breathe in and lift up your chest, hands, and feet. Breathe out to lower back down. Repeat two more times, connect your inhales with lifting up and your exhales with lowering down. On your third lift up reach your arms back and interlace your fingers above your bum. If the hands cannot reach one another, you can use a yoga strap or a towel to bridge the gap.
Gaze about a foot in front of your mat so that your neck maintains a natural sense of extension from your spine. Keep your belly and your pubic bone grounded. Reach your inner thighs up and lengthen your tailbone toward your heels. Hold for 5 breaths. Lower down and place your arms next to your torso with your palms facing up. Rest your left cheek on your mat for 3 breaths, then your right cheek for 3 breaths.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
From the prone position, come to all fours to find Tabletop. Now push your hips up and back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose). Inhale and lift your right leg up and back. On your breath out, step your right foot forward between your hands, stacking your knee over your ankle. Release your left knee down and untuck your toes.
Breathe in and raise your arms up so that the biceps come in line with your face. Exhale to pause and notice the connection of your feet on the ground. Move your pubic bone slightly forward and lift the sides of your body up. Create a commensurate amount of effort throughout your back body to lift up. Keep your breath steady and your gaze soft. Hold for 5 breaths. Release your hands down to frame your front foot and step Down Dog. Repeat on the left side.
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
From Down Dog, shift your body forward into Plank. Lower your knees and release down to lie on your belly. Line your knees up with your hips. Bend your knees and kick your heels toward your bum. Reach your hands back to grab for the outsides of your feet. If your feet are out of reach or it feels too difficult to hold them, continue to kick the feet in towards the bum. Reach the arms back with the palms face down and keep the hands alongside the legs.
Breathe in to lift up your chest, breathe out and kick your feet into your hands. Feel the connection of your pubic bone and thighs to your mat and breath steadily for 8 breath cycles. Lower down and rest your forehead on the back of your hands.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Lay on your belly with your feet hip width apart. Place your hands underneath your shoulders. Press into the tops of your feet and your hands to pull your heart forward and through your upper arms as you lift your thighs off of your mat. Wrap your inner thighs up, pull your low belly in and lift the sides of your ribs up. Broaden across your chest and softly lift your gaze. Take 5 breaths to feel the connection of your hands and feet on your mat lifting you. Then press back to Down Dog.
Seated Side Stretches
From Down Dog, release your knees down and sit on your heels or on a yoga prop such as a bolster. Reach your arms over head and grab your left wrist and pull up and over to the right side. Keep your hips anchoring down and your chest facing forward. Feel the lengthening of the side body as your breath evenly into your left lung. Keep your shoulder blades on your back. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Inhale to return to center, and breathe out to switch sides.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Come to stand on your knees. Glance back at your feet to make sure they are in line with your hips. Look down at your knees to make sure they are under your hips. Place your hands on your low back with the fingertips pointing down. Use your hands to slide the skin of the low back down as if you are creating more space for your body to open from.
Choose one steady thing in front of you at eye level to look at when you come back up. Breathe in and lift up your chest, breathe out to pause and take in your connection to the ground. You can keep your hands on your low back. Or, while keeping your torso as even as possible, reach back for the heels. Use the sides of the ribs to lift the center of your heart up. Keep the inner and outer corners of your eyes soft and gaze steady. Bring ease to your mind by breathing evenly. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
To come out, return your hands to your lower back and breathe as you rise up. Sit your bum to your heels, gaze softly at the one steady point you selected in front of you. Take in the connection of your shins to the ground and your hands to your thighs. Sit with a tall spine for 5–10 breaths, then sweep your feet out in front of you and come to lay on your back.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Lay on your back, bend your right knee in toward your chest and place the ball of your right foot into a strap. Extend your right foot toward the ceiling and gently press your left leg into the ground. Keep your shoulders soft. Stay for 8–10 breaths and switch sides. Use this pose to neutralize your spine after backbends and counter the extension of the front of the hips. It also helps open up the hamstrings, which contract during backbends.
Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
Place a folded blanket or a shallow bolster about 4 inches away from a wall. Sit on top of the blanket or bolster with one side of your hips against the wall. Swing your legs onto the wall and lay down with your shoulders on the ground. Slide your bum as close to the wall as possible so that your sit bones are off the blanket. The bolster or blanket should be positioned between the bottom tip of your shoulder blades and your sacrum. If this is too much strain on your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly and scoot yourself slightly further from the wall. The chest should feel broad and expansive and give way to easy breathing. Rest here for 3–5 minutes before coming to final rest in Savasana.
Neeti Narula is a mindfulness teacher in New York City. She was first drawn to yoga during a difficult time in her life. She sees teaching as an opportunity to share with others a sacred practice that has brought her solace and immense personal growth. Neeti sees teaching as life’s greatest opportunity to learn.