Backbends. When done properly, they feel incredible. They build strength and mobility in the spine, teach us how to open our hearts and face our fears, and leave us feeling energized and blissful. But when done out of alignment or before our bodies are ready, they can be discouraging, painful, or downright dangerous. Here’re 5 things you must know to make your backbends safer, deeper, and more awesome all around
1. Your Warm Up is Really Important
Deep backbends like Ustrasana (Camel) and Urdhva Danurasana (Upward Bow Pose) usually happen towards the end of a yoga class, and the time leading up to these postures should be spent preparing the body. So before attempting these poses, it’s important to focus on opening and activating the areas of your body that you need to get into the posture safely.
So what are these areas?
The name back bend is a bit misleading, as much of the strength and flexibility required to do these postures safely actually comes from the front of the body. For safe and deep backbends, you need open but strong quads and hip flexors, good mobility in your chest and shoulders, and a strong core to support you.
To warm up all these areas, include the following postures in your practice:
– some spine awakening postures like gentle cat/cows
– some ‘lunging’ postures that stretch your hip flexors like virabadrasana A (warrior 1) and anjaneyasana (low lunge)
– some postures that lengthen the quads, like supta virasana (reclining hero) and natarajasana (dancing shiva)
– some chest and shoulder openers like prasarita padotanasana C (wide legged forward bend with linked hands) and gomhukasana (cow face pose)
– some core activating postures like plank or side plank.
You don’t want to do too much core work right before doing a backbend, however, as too much focus on the area can leave your muscles feeling tight and contracted.
2. Understand Safe Alignment
If we lack strength or flexibility in the areas listed in the last section, we tend to bend from our lower back in order to ‘deepen’ the pose, which can cause serious pain and harm to our spine in the long run. Avoid this by following proper alignment in backbends:
Create a solid base. Ground firmly through all four corners of your feet and hands, lifting through your calves and quads for support.
Rotate the thighs in. Be sure not to let your legs splay out and away from each other. Instead, focus on rotating your thighs toward each other.
Engage your core. Drawn your navel toward your spine and keep your abdominal muscles strong and steady. This is the most important step in protecting your lower back.
Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears. Whether you’re doing a gentle cobra or a dynamicwheel, make sure your neck is long and your shoulders aren’t hunched up toward your ears.
3. Remember, It Shouldn’t Hurt
When it comes to backbends, we need to forget the ‘no pain no gain’ mentality. Yoga is not supposed to hurt or cause injury, it’s supposed to keep you healthy, happy and at peace! If you’re doing a backbend and it hurts, come out immediately. If you want to try the pose again, do it slowly, after class, under the guidance of the instructor, who might be able to identify ways you can correct your alignment, or give you an alternative posture to practice that’s safer for your body.
4. Go Slow and Find Balance
We spend most of our time in our daily lives hunched forward, that’s why we need backbends! But when we try to advance too quickly with these postures because we want our pose to look just like the picture we saw on Instagram, it can be a shock—or even dangerous—to our bodies.
Start slow, going only as far as you comfortably can. Spend your time focusing on strengthening and lengthening the areas we reviewed in the first section. Your backbends will gradually get deeper and stronger, and you’ll be able to practice them for a long-time as you won’t injure yourself!
Although you might be tempted to do more and more backbends to improve faster, remember, there is no such thing as a ‘backbend only’ yoga practice. A safe, balanced practice will also include standing postures, seated postures, twists, and forward bends. And don’t forget: after performing a deep backbend, be sure to spend twice as long in a counter pose like child’s pose to neutralize your spine.
5. Don’t be scared!
According to yogic philosophy, Abhinivesa or ‘fear,’ is one of the kleshas—obstacles that prevent us from realizing inner peace. Backbends are some of the most beautiful postures of all, as they allow us to open our hearts, overcome this obstacle, and conquer our fears! Being wise and safe with your body doesn’t mean allowing fear to keep you from trying backbends—it just means being mindful of your body as you test your limits. Of course, backbends are scary. This is part of the reason they are so exhilarating: by practicing them, you become fearless.