How to Safely Improve Your Backbends

Backbends can be very beneficial to the mind and body when they are executed correctly. Backbends are energizing and invigorating. They stimulate the heart chakra and help us to release pent up emotions, in turn reducing stress. They can help to strengthen the back muscles, lengthen the front body, and open the chest and shoulders. In this new digital era, backbends can be especially helpful to improve posture and counteract all the time we spend hunched forward over our iPhones and laptops.

If you are incorporating backbends into your practice, it is imperative that you are doing so safely and with good technique. Misalignment in a backbend can put undue stress on the back—especially the lumbar spine—potentially resulting in injury. What I notice most often as an instructor is that people tend to focus on getting a curve in their spine but not on where in the spine that curve is coming from.  The simplest way to create an arc in your back is to tilt your pelvis forward; this creates an arch in the lumbar spine of the lower back, but it also compresses the lower spine and puts your back in a poor position to bear weight. This kind of curve in the low back does more harm than good and is a position we want to avoid. A proper backbend requires the body to elongate up and then back, with the curve coming from the thoracic spine, as the chest and shoulders open.

To create a safe and effective backbend, start by taking the focus away from the curve; concentrate on lengthening through the torso; and think about lifting and opening the chest. At first this is likely to result in a small curve in the upper back and that is an ideal place to start. Even in a mild backbend you are still receiving all the great benefits of the posture. Over time, you will gain both strengthen through the upper back and flexibility through the quadriceps, hip flexors, chest, and the anterior of your shoulders. This increase in strength and range of motion can result in a safe and deeper backbend. Progressing slowly with attention to technique will help you maintain the integrity of your spine.

Be mindful of your low back and pelvis throughout your backbend to ensure that your pelvis doesn’t start to tilt forward and that you do not feel any pressure or pinching in your low back. Think of your pelvis as a bowl filled with water. You want to keep the water from spilling out the front of your bowl.

These simple backbends are a great place to start. They allow you to ease in with small and gentle bends that you can progress overtime. The prone position will also help keep your pelvis in a neutral position.

Gentle Backbend Poses & Progressions

Cobra

Alignment: Press toenails down into the mat, and think about gently drawing the outside of the upper thighs down towards the floor, to create more space in the low back. Place your hands slightly in front of the shoulders and tuck your elbows in towards your ribs.

As you inhale, press the chest forward and up, and come to a comfortable height for your lower back. Start low and over time you may progress into a bigger lift and backbend. Think about pulling the shoulders down away from your ears and the heads of your upper arms back.

Bow

Alignment: Start with a half-bow pose, stretching one side at a time. Bend one leg at the knee and reach around with the same hand to grasp that ankle. Press the ankle into the hand to deepen the stretch in the front of that bent leg. Roll the shoulder back to help open through the chest a little more. Keep your shoulders squared to the front edge of your mat. As your range of motion and strength improve, you will be able to lift the chest higher and away from the floor. To progress to full bow, reach for both ankles at the same time.

Sphinx

Alignment: Set up your lower body as in cobra; press down your toenails and pull your outer thighs towards the floor. Line your elbows up under your shoulders with your forearms and palms parallel on the floor. If placing the elbows under the shoulders is too much and uncomfortable on the low back, then slide the elbows further out in front of you and lower your chest closer to the floor.

On the inhale think about lifting the chest forward and up; and on the exhale concentrate on pulling the shoulders back and relaxing them down.

Bridge

Alignment: Place your feet hip-width apart, with your knees stacked over your ankles. Roll your shoulders down, away from your ears and plant your shoulder blades firmly on the mat. Tuck your chin to elongate and protect the back of the neck, with your arms at your sides and palms down.

Inhale as you lift your hips up to a comfortable height, lengthening the front body, and squeezing the hamstring, glutes, and lower back muscles of the back body. Keep even weight through your feet to help the knees remain parallel and prevent them from collapsing inwards or falling out to the sides. Over time, you may be able to progress your bridge higher, and you may be able to claps your hands on the floor beneath you to allow the chest to open more.

Camel

Alignment: For a gentle, modified camel pose kneel with your kees about hip-width apart. Lengthen the spine and gently place the palms of your hands on the top of your posterior pelvis.

Inhale and lift the heart as you gently pull the elbows back. Avoid the urge to press your hands into your pelvis and causing it to tilt forward. Ensure the work comes from the shoulder blades pulling back and the chest opening.

To progress your camel pose, start by widening your knees and placing a bolster across your ankles. From camel option one, walk your hands one at a time from your lower back to your bolster. Really focus on pulling the shoulder blades back towards your spine. Also, protect your neck by tucking your chin and not allowing your head to fall all the way back. To exit your camel pose, simply remove your hands from behind you and sit back on the bolster or your heels.

Postures to Improve Your Backbends

Are you are at a point where you are comfortable with the average backbend posture and feel like you’ve hit a wall trying to progress further? These postures and their progressions will help you to gain strength in your back, open your chest, and increase your hip flexor flexibility—all of which are essential for improving backbends.

Pigeon

While pidgeon is often thought of as a hip opener, it also lengthens the quadricep and hip flexor of the straight back leg. The King Pigeon variation adds a backbend and the potential to further elongate the front body.

Alignment: Front leg is bent at the knee, with the lower leg and foot at a diagonal, so that you don’t end up sitting on the foot. The back leg is straight out behind you, with the top of the foot and toes relaxed on the mat. Start with the arms long and the hands in front of the shoulders on the mat. You can ease back into more of a backbend from here if and when it is comfortable.

Walk the hands under the shoulders, lifting the chest, and pulling the shoulders back. The next step is to walk the hands behind the torso and pulling the shoulders back even more. The final progression is to bend the back leg at the knees and reach around with the same hand to grab the back ankle. Press the ankle into the hand, deepening the quadricep and hip flexor stretch.

Lunge

Lunges will also work on lengthening the quadricep, hip flexors, and rectus abdominis.

Alignment: Keep the front knee over the ankle and the kneecap in line with the big toe. Straighten the back leg and focus on extending right through the back heel.

Inhale the arms straight up overhead. To progress, think about pressing the heart forward and up as the shoulders ease back, opening the chest, and lengthening more through the torso.

To really work on the improving flexibility here, try sliding the lower back leg up the wall in a kneeling lunge. The wider the legs are in the lunge, then the gentler the stretch will be. Adjust the distance between the front and back leg as needed. Front knee should always be supported over the ankle. Taking this further you can work on extending the arms overhead.

Supported Fish

This is the best way to open the chest and the front of the shoulders. If you don’t have a bolster, a rolled up blanket (or two) can work, or a pillow over the top of your rolled up yoga mat is my go-to option at home.

Alignment: Place bolster against your low back and slowly lower your back along the bolster. Ensure your head and neck are supported here. Use an extra pillow at the end of the bolster for the head if needed. Open the arms at shoulder height and let the back of the hands rest on the floor. You can prop the wrists with rolled towels to start if the floor is too far of a stretch. If the low back is not comfortable here, try keeping the feet on the floor with the knees bent, or place a folded blanket under your bottom.

Back Extensions

These last two postures will help to develop strengthen in the upper back, which will also help you to pull your shoulders back and open your chest in your backbends. Strength in the thoracic spine will improve posture, allow this region of the back to carry its own weight more effectively, and dump less weight into the lower back.

Alignment: Setting the lower body up as in cobra and sphinx; press your toenails down and pull the outer thighs down towards the floor.

Picture #1: Place your fingers tips on the mat beside your hips. Lift the chest as you pull your shoulder blades towards your spine.

Picture# 2: Place your hands next to your lower ribs, bend your elbows at about 90 degrees, and tuck them into your sides. The chest lifts slightly and the shoulders roll back. Focus on pressing the elbows back and into your sides while pulling your shoulder blades to your spine.

Wherever you are at with your backbends, and whatever your goals, remember to focus on alignment rather than your end game; and always listen to your body. This way you can ensure you are working safely in your postures and keeping the spine healthy and happy!

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