Safe backbends keep the spine supple, heart open, and core strong, among many other benefits. When done correctly, these poses energize and detoxify the body, leaving yogis feeling cleansed and revitalized—no master cleansing required. Whereas a forward bend is calming and introspective, a backbend is opening and awakening. Last weekend, I held a workshop that focused specifically on backbends, called: Fall Head Over Heels.
On the heels of the workshop (sorry, you know I'm a sucker for a good pun), I've been answering a lot of questions regarding backbends, such as upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), shown above, bow (dhanurasana), camel (ustrasana), wheel (urdhva dhanurasana), and more advanced variations, including transitions from wheel into camel, drop-backs, and more. To help make your poses more accessible, safe, and advanced, I've compiled some key backbending tips to keep in mind.
- Solid foundation: Every asana must begin with a steady and relaxed foundation. In upward dog (shown above), my ankles and feet are relaxed, while my thighs are squeezing and lifting, helping to alleviate any pressure in my low spine. My hands, too, should be well-aligned (shoulder-width distance apart) and rooting strongly into the earth. My right hand, for example, should be flatter to the ground, here. (Shame on me).
- Strong legs: After intense backbending, I tell yogis that, if anything, their legs should be sore, as opposed to their backs. Before I reach backward in the pose below, my legs must be wide awake. The front thigh is driving forward, while the back leg is, again, squeezing and lifting.
- Tucked tailbone: This is very important for the safety of your lower back. Tucking your tailbone helps lift and lengthen the spine upward before it bends back.
- Supportive core: Think of your core as a supportive, broad belt (like the type worn by UPS workers or body builders). Its job is to protect your spine. The abdominal work often incorporated into yoga classes today helps to support poses such as backbends, along with inversions, in particular.
- Relaxed shoulders: My male students, especially, are sometimes perplexed by backbends. They know they're strong enough to do them but often struggle with accessing poses such as wheel or king dancer (below). The magic ingredient for these backbends is space and flexibility in the shoulders. More muscles in your upper back and shoulders (likely found in om guys, buff gals, swimmers, and others) leads to less flexibility. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (be proud of your strength!); however, it will hinder some of your backbends. Aim to open the shoulders before attempting deep backbends, and in any backbend, focus on dropping your shoulders down. This will also create space and safety for your neck . . .
- Safe cervical spine: Keeping your spine safe during backbends is the utmost priority. For this reason, the tailbone tucks, the mid-spine lifts, the shoulders drop, and the neck remains long. It can be tempting to crank your head back in upward dog or wheel, for example, but this doesn't provide any discernible benefit to the pose. Over time, it can hurt your all-important neck. In most cases, try aiming your eyes/gaze (known as drishti) straight ahead, rather than overly up or down.
Focus on these tips and you'll be able to open your heart and energize for the weekend ahead and beyond. Enjoy!