Backbends, commonly known in yoga as heart or chest openers, are an integral part of any yoga practice. They are invigorating and strengthening, releasing the spine as well as the chest and shoulder area – places where lots of us hold tensions. If practised safely, with an appropriate mindset and warm-up, they can be very exhilarating and freeing, improving our posture in the long term.
Generally, backward bending increases physical mobility and spine awareness. This improves our posture, alleviating back and neck pains along the way. Unfortunately, with our sedentary lifestyle, we spend a significant amount of time losing our chest, for example while driving a car or sitting at an office desk. Such continuous gentle forward bending increases the risks of lower back issues. We only counteract that impact – by bending in the opposite direction – in occasional yoga classes, or while warming up for other sports.
Let’s talk about the spine... In the optimal alignment, the lumbar spine should rest in a slight arch. This arch is called lumbar lordosis, and although it may sound like a name of a condition, it stands for an ideal alignment of the spine – useful for carrying the body weight and preventing low back issues. When we lose the normal curve due to poor posture, and either reduce it (flat back syndrome) or increase it (hyperlordosis), the chances are we start experiencing a persistent lower back pain, or even develop muscle spasms and disc injuries.
Here, yoga comes to our help – the parts of the spine that are often stuck in the chronic forward position can be eased out with plenty of easy yoga poses – Low cobra, Snake, Half-locust, Bridge, and Warrior I pose, to name a few. All of them are great backbends – the fool-proof spine-strengtheners which help us stand straighter.
The strong back is good. Along with the built up power in the legs and arms – as in many yoga poses we have to lift the body against the force of gravity in one way or another – our strong back can assist us in simple daily activities, such as carrying groceries or children, complimenting other sport activities and preparing us for more advanced yoga poses.
That built up strength is not the only benefit of backbending, runners and cyclists gain here from stretching the muscles after their workouts too. What’s more, backbends assist the extension of the spine, a normal movement that is based on the anatomical structure of the lumbar vertebrae. And this, not only reduces pains but may prevent the development of future ones.
Practicing daily backbends will eventually open the chest area, and subconsciously encourage us to keep our shoulders rolled back, also outside of a yoga studio. This will make our shallow breathing – the result of excessive forward-bending – deep and diaphragmatic, filling out the total space of the previously compressed lungs.
In fact, one of the intentions for backbends is to open the rib cage in preparation for pranayama – the breathwork. This practice is key for oxygenating the body, and calming the mind along with the nervous system. It’s worth mentioning that for this reason a regular yoga practice is also recommended for respiratory diseases, fatigue, anxiety, and menstrual discomfort.
There are a few things to remember while performing strong backbends though. We should always use a good non-slip yoga mat, to not crunch the lower back, and to be gentle with the neck. The neck can be protected in many poses by tucking the chin in. However, migraine and insomnia sufferers aren’t recommended to practise strong backbends at all, nor people with a high or low blood pressure.
Advanced backbends are all quite different. For example in pregnancy, Camel and Pigeon pose shouldn’t be performed unless they were regularly practised before, but only until the sixth month, ideally with the help of a chair. While Two-Legged Inverted Staff, or One-Legged King Pigeon pose should be avoided entirely.
Advanced Backbends: Camel Pose
To prepare for a stronger backbend, we have to start gently. The warm-up is not there to prepare our body only, but also our mind. We have to be psychologically ready to go into a strong one. The physical foundation has to be solid too – the spine mobilised in all different directions, and the front of the chest and shoulders ready to do some extra work. We can start from gentle preliminary poses such as Locust, Bow, Bridge, Hero and Reclining hero as well as, Pigeon, Cobra and Upward-facing dog. Then, the preparation can move towards Sun Salutations that include Warrior II pose – it provides leg strength, while strong Plank pose – deep abdominal muscles warm-up.
To start, we have just kneel on the floor with the knees hip distance apart, and buttocks resting on the heels. Then, placing the palms on the feet, pointing toward the toes. Inhaling and expanding the chest, straightening the arms without squeezing the shoulder blades and with elbow creases facing forward. Next, drawing the shoulders back while we look up. On the exhale, pressing down on the feet to push the pubis forward. Raising the thighs to vertical, while avoiding compressing the lower back. The neck can be kept in a neutral position, neither flexed or extended, or just dropped back, whatever feels more comfortable. Staying here for several breaths, from half a minute to minute, expanding the rib cage fully on the inhale. When we decide to exit, we simply lower the buttocks to the heels, and allow the head to come up last, avoiding using the neck muscles to raise the head. It’s then recommended to rest in Child pose.
Less experienced yogis may struggle to touch their hands to the feet without straining the back or neck. If that’s the case, they should tuck the toes under or rest each hand on a block just outside each heel. Otherwise, kneeling with the back to the chair, and the calves and feet below the seat. The front edge of the seat should be touching the buttocks. The leaning back.
For those willing to find out more, let’s create a solid foundation by engaging the core, so that it supports the back by pulling the belly in and up. The tailbone points down rather than scooping under. Keeping the neck long and happy and aiming for an even arch over the whole spine. Releasing the shoulders down the back. However, if the shoulders are tight, this posture can be very difficult for the neck – a wall can be used as a prop to protect the neck (with the toes turned under and the soles close to the wall).
Additionally, a partner can help working with the neck and head in this pose by standing directly behind. He or she supports the back of the head with one hand, and presses his or her other hand up on the upper back, between the shoulder blades. Next, the partner should pull the base of the skull away from the back of the neck and push the shoulder blades in the opposite direction – down the back, to let the neck grow.
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