A backbend in a yoga class can be energising and a great way to release tension in the shoulders and chest. They can also be tricky and even painful if you have back pain. Not only that, backbends are unavoidable in a modern day hatha yoga class. From lunges to sun salutations, backbends are everywhere. Rather than avoiding your yoga practice, try some of these variations to help you backbend mindfully on your yoga mat.
The goal with these poses is to stabilise the lower back, free up the mid and upper back and keep the neck in proper alignment. For many people, the lower back is overly mobile while the mid and upper back tends to be stiffer. In yoga, this means that the lower back has a tendency to overextend, causing unnecessary compression of the spinal column. The mid and upper back muscles tense up to try and counter the hypermobility of the low back. This creates unnecessary tension in the upper body. The neck further contributes to the tension in the upper back when the head is thrust forward in space. This throws off the alignment of the spine and has a reverberating effect all the way down to the low back.
Stabilise in a Backbend
Stability in a backbend in yoga is key to managing back pain while you practice. More often than not, it is people’s low backs that lack stability. Not surprisingly, a hypermobile lower back is usually paired with weak core muscles. So in order to stabilise the low back, you must build up core strength. In a previous post, we looked at pelvic floor exercises for back pain. In addition to strengthening your deep core muscles, try this yoga-inspired option.
- Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees.
- Lower your forearms down to the floor. Your elbows should be directly beneath your shoulders. Your forearms can be parallel with your palms face down or can be angled inward so your palms touch.
- One at a time, extend your legs back so that your hips are level with your hips. If you need the extra support, bring your knees down to your mat. If you bring your knees down, keep your thighs at an angle so that your hips stay level with your shoulders.
- Tilt your low belly up towards your low ribs to engage the lower abdomen. Let this action lengthen your tailbone down towards your heels and bring space into your lower back.
- Engage your glutes and squeeze your inner thighs together to activate the legs.
- Press down into your forearms and dome your upper back a small amount to prevent collapsing between the shoulder blades.
- Breathe normally. When you exhale, contract the belly and lift it up towards your spine. This will engage your core muscles further.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Rest for 30 seconds and then repeat. Remember you can drop your knees to the floor at any time if you start to feel strain in your lower back.
Create Mobility in a Backbend
With regular core strengthening in your yoga practice you will be well on your way to creating stability for your lower back. To get the most out of your yoga backbends, though, you also need an adequate amount of mobility in your mid and upper back. Unlike the lower back, the mid and upper spine is not as naturally free. This is largely due to the fact that the mid and upper spine support the ribcage which is not meant to move around too much. Here is a simple and effective way to achieve mid and upper back mobility.
For this exercise, you will need either two yoga blocks.
- Start seated. Place your two blocks behind you with the long side perpendicular to your spine. Start on the medium height. The blocks should be parallel and about six inches apart. You can adjust them later.
- Traditionally in yoga, blocks are placed with the long side running the length of the spine to support the entire upper back. By placing the blocks the other way, the upper back is able to bend and stretch.
- Slowly lower yourself back onto the blocks. You want the first block to rest between your shoulder blades. The other block goes behind your head.
- Either keep your knees bent with your feet on the floor or stretch your legs out. Let your arms fall beside you like you would in savasana.
- Breath normally and allow your body to relax into the blocks.
- You can inch the block beneath your shoulder blades up the spine as your mid and upper back start to open up.
- Hold for three to five minutes to give your spine time to open up. When you come out of the pose do a gentle forward fold or child’s pose to counter the backbend.
Create Alignment in a Backbend
Despite the fact that your neck is the smallest part of your spine, it plays a major role in the overall alignment of your back in a backbend. When performing a backbend it is important not to let your head collapse back. It is also important not to thrust your head forward in space. Striking a balance between these two extremes keeps both your neck and the rest of your spine in a supported, stable position. The cues for this backbend can be used in most backbends throughout your yoga practice.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep a micro-bend in your knees and lift up through your low belly as you lengthen your tailbone down towards your heels.
- Place your hands on the backs of your hips with your fingers pointing down. Draw your elbows closer together.
- Start to lift your sternum up towards the ceiling. Relax your shoulders down your back. Think of creating length in the back of your body to create space in the front of your body.
- To position your neck, bring more length into the back of your neck. Tuck your chin slightly towards your throat. Let the biting surfaces of your teeth separate to release tension in the jaw.
Be mindful of the stability, mobility and alignment of your spine the next time you end up on your yoga mat. Notice how with a little bit of mindfulness you are able to continue your yoga practice in a way that supports your back.