When it comes to backbends, there’s a lot more to it than just bending backwards…. In order to find the healthiest backbend for our own body, it’s important to open up, lengthen, strengthen and release all the other areas that might be restricting us from getting into a backbend that is truly beneficial for us.
A lot of the time, movement in backbends comes mostly from the lumbar spine and cervical spine (the lower back and neck). These two areas of the spine are already lordotic (meaning their curve exhibits a back-bend already) and are already pretty flexibe. The cervical spine has the most amount of flexion and extension – with normal range between 60 degrees flexion and 75 degrees extension; the lumbar region usually has around 60 degrees of flexion and 25 degrees of extension.
Because these two areas are already flexible (the extent of which depends on our daily activities and habits… they don’t always feel very flexible), it however easy to hyper-extend in backbends like dhanurasana and urdhva Dhanurasana where all the movement is directed into these two areas. When we backbend in this way, there’s a likelihood of too much pressure being put in those particular parts of the spine – and our Yoga practice could end up being more harmful than helpful….
The thoracic area of the spine has very little movement, mostly because this area of the spine is connected to the ribcage, housing the lungs, heart… and a whole lot of other important stuff that needs to be protected! The pericardium (a sack-like tissue which houses the heart) actually connects to the thoracic spine, which is why backbending can have a very direct effect on how connected we feel to emotions of the heart. Another reason for ‘stiffness’ in this area of the spine is largely down to our habits of hunching the shoulders and rounding the chest, breathing in a shallow way (and therefore restricting the ability for the intercostal muscles around the lungs to move and open up), and energetically closing ourselves off from others if we feel negative emotions.
A few ways to bring some more movement and awareness into this part of the spine include simply breathing into this place, practicing twisting postures such as ‘thread the needle’, this heart-opening version of virabhadrasana 1, and the arm position of garudasana (eagle pose).
Backbending is not just about bending-the-back, or even about simply bending backwards, it’s about opening the whole front of the body (specifically the deep and superficial front lines of fascia, which run from the feet to the top of the head…. Click here for more info on that….). Tension, muscular ‘tightness’, skeletal or anatomical (by this I mean ‘the way you’re made’) restrictions in the hips, back, chest and shoulders – as well as weakness in the spinal muscles themselves – can all prevent backbends from being enjoyable or even accessible postures.
Other than physical limitations, our mental and emotional state has perhaps an even bigger part to play in practicing backbends; for those who are prone to ‘closing off’ from others, or have difficulty expressing themselves or ‘opening the heart’ in situations, this is very likely to translate into finding some backbending postures difficult. This may sound strange at first – but our bodies and our emotions are not separate things…. We may hear teachers speaking of grief or sadness being ‘held’ in the chest, and if this isn’t explained then yes, it can sound hard to believe.
One reason for this, is the fact that when we feel emotions like sadness or despair or depression, our physical reaction is to hunch the back, round the shoulders and collapse the chest; unconsciously making ourselves ‘smaller’ in order to match our mood. If this is done repeatedly, such as in situations of grief, loneliness, long-term sadness, or even when dealing with chronic low self-esteem, our bodily tissue responds by essentially molding to this shape we’ve repeatedly put ourselves in….
This is simply the body’s way of being efficient; if we constantly round the back and collapse the shoulders, the body no longer needs strong rhomboid or trapezius muscles (muscles of the upper back), so they become both weak and stiff due to lack of engagement and movement. If the shoulders are constantly hunched, it makes no sense to the body to have supple, long anterior shoulder ligaments or any ability to ‘expand across the chest’, because our daily habits don’t ever seem to need this action. The body is just trying to help us not spend more energy than we need to….
Generally speaking, the healthiest backbend to cultivate is one which includes an opening of the whole body and mind – specifically the quadriceps, hip flexors and psoas, abdominal muscles, intercostals, muscles of the chest, the anterior ligaments of the shoulders, and tissue of the neck. In terms of opening the mind, this may take a little longer than a 90 minute class, but once we have the belief and trust in ourselves to ‘open up’, we can transform not just in a backbend on the mat, but in each situation we come across in daily life, too.
This variation of anjaneyasana can be a pretty intense opening for the body – depending upon the variation you choose and also how much your body is comfortable with backbending at the moment. The quads, psoas, abdominals (especially obliques and rectus abdominis), intercostals and even the tissue of the armpit and triceps all have the potential to lengthen deeply. Using the breath – specifically breathing into the parts you’re focussing on ‘opening’ can go further towards creating a sense of spaciousness in the body.
To prepare the body for this version of anjaneyasana:
- Begin on hands and knees, and move through a few rounds of cat / cow to bring some awareness and movement to the spine.
- From there, move into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and to Tadasana (mountain pose).
- With extra awareness on using the inhale to initiate ‘opening’ and the exhale to initiate any movements which resemble ‘closing’, move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A.
- After 3-5 rounds, return to Tadasana.
- From Tadasana, step the [left] leg back and practice ashta chandrasana in its ‘classic’ form (here) and with (this) twisting variation, which also helps to open the hip flexors and psoas.
- After practicing to both sides of the body, come back to adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and practice anjaneyasana.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths before moving onto the backbending variation.
- From adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), step the [right] foot between the hands and gently bring the back knee down to the floor.
- Inhale as you bring the arms up along-side the ears and come into anjaneyasana (low lunge)
- Bring the [right] hand onto the [right] hip and lower the hips further towards the floor.
- Keep the engagement of the muscles by isometrically (without moving them) drawing the front foot and the back knee in towards each other. For most people, the healthiest way to build flexibility is to engage the muscles while lengthening them – so they’re alive and aware and we’re not just ‘pulling’ on the tissue. Engaging while lengthening or ‘stretching’ allows the muscle fibres to stay active and remember the fact that it’s actually ok for the muscle to lengthen this far – thus remembering how far to lengthen next time it’s asked to come into a more flexible position. If we don’t engage the muscles however, we lose some of the awareness and sensitivity to this area of the body, and simply ‘pull’ on the muscles. Pulling without awareness doesn’t usually end well as there’s not as much conscious control over the movements, and we risk damaging the connective tissue or muscle itself…. **ouch**
- If that does happen, you’ll need this recipe!
- Reach the [left] arm up, and begin by using the breath to create a feeling of ‘space’ in the ribs, chest and side-body.
- On the exhale, gently lean to the right and slightly back, until you feel a lengthening into the left hip flexors – depending upon flexibility, you may feel this all the way into the quadriceps, armpit, and maybe all the way into the fingertips! Move into this slowly, with awareness on the breath – remember the breath is an expression of our emotional and mental state and is the most important part of the practice as it tells us when we’re pushing too far and too fast!
- You can stay in this position, or choose to move further by bringing the [right] hand down onto a block (at its highest position), placed to the right, slightly back from the right hip. Whichever variation you choose – maintain length in the spine. This is such an important aspect of backbending, as it means we cultivate a healthy and even backbend, rather than compressing the neck and lumbar spine., therefore allowing breath, nerve-impulses and energy to move freely through the physical and subtle body.
- To move further, take the height of the block to a lower position – which will deepen the backbend and mount of opening into the psoas.
- To move further still, bring the fingertips down to the floor – or even the whole palm of the hand if it’s comfortable. Again, continue to lengthen the spine and listen to the breath.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however long is comfortable for you – and perhaps think of this less as ‘backbending’ and more as ‘opening the front of the body’ and see if this changes how you feel in the asana.
- To transition out, press the back foot down and slowly raise the body up, bringing both hands down either-side of the front foot.
- To counterpose this asana, sweep the front foot back and come onto hands and knees, moving through a few rounds of cat/cow again.
- Come to a sitting position, and practice ardha matsyendrasana, a twist which can help to ‘neutralise’ the physical and energetic effects of backbending.
- Stay in a seated position for 1-2 minutes, and become aware of the effects of the posture before moving onto practice this on the other
‘The mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work unless it’s open’….
– Frank Zappa