Although backbends may appear to be all about flexibility, they actually require a lot of strength in order to practice them in a way that is healthy and sustainable.
The strength we need to cultivate before moving into backbends arises not only from the muscles of the back, but also a connection to the deep core line, and an ability to feel grounded in the foundations of the asana. Connecting to the core is important because it give us the ability to feel supported by ourselves through the practice, and will enable the posture to be held for a longer amount of time without creating tension. This balance of strength and softness, and being grounded while opening up is described brilliantly by Vanda Scaravelli, whose practice and teaching revolved around the resilience and health of the spine:
‘There is a division in the center of our back, where the spine moves simultaneously in two opposite directions: from the waist down towards the legs and the feet, which are pulled by gravity, and from the waist upwards, through the top of the head, lifting us up freely.’ Vanda Scaravelli
Backbends are the opposite of what we generally do all day; hunching forwards and closing off. By doing something that is the complete opposite, we challenge ourselves to get out of habitual patterns of movement, and open up to experiencing something new, therefore cultivating that balance of strength and openness in the mind too.
As we open the front of the body, we also open all the muscles we contract when hunching over, and which are contracted when the fight or flight response is activated. Opening out these muscles (particularly the psoas and the muscles of the chest) literally releases stored tension which may have built up over time – both physically and energetically. This is why you may have heard teachers talking about backbends ‘bringing up difficult emotions’, and why it’s not uncommon to see someone crying after practicing Ustrasana (camel pose)….
Deeper backbends give a gentle compression to the nerves which serve the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system), you might notice this if your heart and respiratory rate increases after practicing a backbend. While we’re often told to relax in order to switch ‘off’ the sympathetic nervous system, this is a very good way of deliberately switching it ‘on’ in order to become aware of what it feels like, and how to then calm the body again.
By consciously activating the sympathetic nervous system, we can then use the other tools of our yoga practice – in this case the breath – to calm the nervous system down again. If backbends affect you in this way, then breathe consciously, slowly and deeply after practicing them, which will help calm the nervous system and move towards the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system). This is a vital tool to take off the mat with you; any time you feel over-stimulated or stressed, consciously breathe deeply in and out of the nose, allowing the belly to rise as you breathe in, and fall as you breathe out. If you know ujjaji breath, then incorporating this will have an even stronger calming effect on the nervous system for a lot of people.
It’s very important to NOTICE how you feel after each posture. Particularly with backbends, there’s a habit of hugging the knees into the chest or curling into a foetal position after practicing them to relieve the spine. If this is done right after a backbend continually in your practice, it not only puts the spine at risk of injury (going from deep extension in Ustrasana to flexion in Balasana will – over time – create ‘wear and tear’ in the spine because of the repetitive back and forth movement. Think of a wire coat hanger; if it’s bent back and forth lots of times, it eventually breaks….) but it’ll stop you from feeling the posture.
While a lot of sensations are felt in each posture, the real magic happens afterwards, particularly with twisting asanas and backbends. While our daily habitual state of mind may be to ‘get things done’, multitask, rush through the day and think about 10 things at once, a yoga practice provides the time and space to feel how our actions affect us, and to once again inhabit the body in a conscious way.
To prepare the body:
Stand in Tadasana. Become aware of Vanda Scaravelli’s words: ‘There is a division in the center of our back, where the spine moves simultaneously in two opposite directions: from the waist down towards the legs and the feet, which are pulled by gravity, and from the waist upwards, through the top of the head, lifting us up freely.’
This will help cultivate the sense of lengthening and extending the spine through a backbend, rather than compressing it.
From there, move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A to warm the body; stay a little longer in your bhujangasana or urdhva mukha svanasana (cobra or upward facing dog) to prepare the spine for further extension.
It’s useful to have some prior opening in the thighs and hip flexors to feel more comfortable in the posture, so after your sun salutations, slowly make your way onto the floor to sit in Virasana (hero pose) and supta virasana if your knees, ankles and hips are comfortable. If this isn’t available to your body (and personally, I don’t practice this posture because my knees find it particularly uncomfortable!) then sit on the heels for a few breaths.
After 10 breaths in your chosen position, make your way onto hands and knees and move through a few rounds of cat/cow, before practicing the full posture….
- From an all-fours position, ensure you’re pressing all the finger-pads down, as well as the tops of all ten toes in order to feel grounded. Open the front of the body on an inhale (also known as the ‘cow’ part of cat / cow, or ‘bitilasana’)
- As you open the body, simultaneously lift the [right] leg up, with the leg bent and the sole of the foot towards the sky.
- Keeping the [right] hand grounded, reach the [left] hand back to hold either the foot or the ankle of the lifted leg. If you’re unable to hold the foot, then reach the hand towards the foot.
- With the hand holding the foot, use the strength of the leg to press the foot into the hand and open the front of the body, drawing the shoulder back and opening into the hip.
- As soon as you come into the full expression of the asana, notice…. All the tendencies listed below are likely to occur when starting a backbending practice, particularly if backbends make you feel uncomfortable:
- Compression in the lower back (sticking the tailbone out)
- Compressing neck
- Holding the breath
- Clenching the jaw
- Can you un-do them?: Lengthen the tailbone: this is possibly a counter-intuitive action to do when in a backbend, but it helps cultivate more length and space in the spine, and a healthier position for the body to be in. Lengthening the tailbone (not tucking it!) also helps us connect to the core a lot more, which is essential for backbending with confidence.
- Keep the back of the neck long: A huge reason for feeling tension in the body is because some of us have a habit of allowing the chin to tilt upwards, and creating compression in the back of the neck. The cervical spine is the place from which a whole lot of very important nerves extend; C1 and C2 control the head, C3 and C4 assist with the diaphragm (our primary breathing muscle), C5 controls many muscles of the upper body including the deltoids and biceps. C6 controls the wrist extensors and assists with the innervation of the biceps, C7 controls the triceps, and C8 controls the hands… so no wonder we don’t feel 100% when experiencing neck pain….
- Breathe: Click HERE to find out more about the benefits of conscious breathing….
- Relax the jaw and face muscles: Tension in the face signals to the body that there’s a reason to be holding tension, setting off various stress responses within the nervous system. Holding muscles of the upper body tense also decreases our ability to breathe properly in a natural, relaxed way.
- Although this posture isn’t particularly difficult, it requires a lot of balance, and the ability to become aware of subtle sensations within the body which ultimately serves to heighten our awareness throughout the whole practice, and eventually in life itself.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however long feels right to you.
- To transition out, exhale to slowly release the foot, bringing the hand and knee gently down to the floor.
- Become aware of the effects of the asana before practicing on the other side of the body.
- To counterpose this posture, rest the hips back on the heels to come into balasana (child’s pose).
Life often seems to rush past, and at the end of the day we may find ourselves asking – ‘what actually happened today?’. A Yoga practice offers the time and the space to become aware of how our actions effect us, how we react to the situations we’re presented with, and what it actually feels like to be present in each moment, so we’re able to actually experience each moment as it comes and goes.