If you are into yoga then you will have some sort of affinity with backbends. You might be blessed with a very flexible spine and can easily enjoy a backdrop after you roll out of bed in the morning. Or you are like the rest of us who often dream of the effortless backdrop with complete ease and finishing off with kicking the feet over your head to land into any other yoga pose you can think of.
In my last newsletter I asked for requests for my 2015 dvd which we are filming now. A few people replied saying they want to work on their backbends and incorporate more heart opening movements in their practice. I am more then happy to do this as I am a lover of backbends and over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed developing an embodied connection to my spine. I have managed to avoid any type of serious injury and really believe that when you have a regular physical practice you build respect and knowledge for what comes easily to your body and what does not.
First and foremost with backbends I would love to be there with you to offer some support and hands on assistance, but for now give yourself permission to be your own teacher. Know that by doing a little everyday is better than not doing anything at all and that progress takes time, so be patient! Please make a promise to yourself before you begin to listen deeply and respect the wisdom of your body, if you experience any type of twinge, tweak, sharp pain or any uncomfortable sensation, then come out of the pose.
When looking at the skeletal structure of the spine you will notice that the vertebras stack on top of each other and just like when you bend forward, when bending backwards they articulate. They move one by one and as backbending is not something we do in everyday life like walking or bending forward to pick something up we need to ensure we go into a backbend in a healthy way.
When bending backwards we first need to activate the movement of lengthening and the sensation of growing taller, we lengthen the spine, which creates space along the vertebras to avoid compression and creating unnecessary tension of the vertebral disks. By lengthening we ensure the whole back body is active and avoid the banana shape in the lower back and compressing the lumbar spine. The side waist is also a member of the backbending team so along with lengthening the spine (in a relaxed way) make sure you do some side bending and side waist opening to help create space here as you lengthen.
Try and keep the glutes and bum muscles relaxed. Why do they like to tense up and want to be involved is beyond me but ideally they should be relaxed just like in baby cobra pose. Have you ever considered that your hip flexors or psoas muscle could be preventing you from going deeper in your backbends? Yes, the psoas or hip flexor muscles play a huge part in the back bending playground so make sure you also spend some time in low lunges to soften your psoas and hip flexor muscle too. Having open shoulders helps with back bends also which means incorporating some Gomukhasana / Cow Face arms while you are in low lunge too.
If you have any type of neck sensitivity then I would suggest to start with Ustrasana / Camel pose where you can apply these techniques and keep your head facing forward. By doing so you protect the tiny vertebras in the neck and slowly slowly, only when you feel 108% comfortable then you can release your head back.
So once you feel like your shoulders are nice and open, you hip flexors soft and relaxed and your side waist long try coming into a backbend, remembering to lengthen first, think up and over instead of back and down. Move slowly, move consciously and most of all breathe! Come out, try again and take time in between to soak up the magic of this medicine. Once you feel full, come into any type of counter pose such as a twist or seated forward bend. In doing so we give our spine and nervous system time to relax after a very invigorating and stimulating practice.
Backbends are like coffee, they stimulate and activate so if you like your sleep avoid practicing them before going to bed. There are many variations of backbends, if you find yourself struggling with the latest instagram yoga pose challenge, get creative and make up your own variation. As I mentioned in the beginning, be your own teacher and most of all have fun!