Ah, the artful, nimble backbend. Perhaps the most photographed and coveted of yoga postures, backbends can make us feel energized and agile—or sideline us with joint inflammation or low back pain when, for example, we’ve moved too quickly in and out of camel pose variations or are suffering the aftereffects of a poorly warmed-up-for wheel pose.
In addition to simply moving too quickly or not warming up enough, there are, unfortunately, also some common cues and ideas about backbending postures that often get in the way of embodying a safe, well-distributed backbend. These misconceptions can cause us to exploit the more mobile areas of the spine while leaving the areas of the body that need the backbend most in a jealous state of neglect. Some errant cues may be more obvious than others: “Bend back until it hurts” (yes, I’ve heard this) and “Go back as far as you can” are examples. It’s pretty clear why these can be harmful; however, there are a few pervasive instructions and transitions that may seem less inherently problematic on the surface but can still be injurious.
In addition to simply moving too quickly or not warming up enough, there are, unfortunately, also some common cues and ideas about this posture that often get in the way of embodying a safe, well-distributed backbend.
Here are three such backbend blunders and suggestions for what we can do instead in order to make our backbends safer and stronger.
Lifting the Chin to the Sky
In camel, cobra, warrior I, and even non-backbending postures like chaturanga, we may be instructed to “look up” or “chin up.” What I see in most groups of students when this cue is given is very little movement in the thoracic spine (upper and middle back) and chest (where the openness is needed most in a backbend) and the head being flung back to compensate for lack of thoracic mobility, causing posterior (backward) compression of the cervical discs. Basically, we’re fooling ourselves when we backbend this way. Bending the neck back is relatively easy, but when we “lead with the head” in backbends rather than rotating the shoulders back, lifting the sternum, and keeping the neck long on all sides, we’re missing out on the “heart opening” (i.e., chest expansion), and our backbends may feel quite uncomfortable.
Instead of lifting the chin and dropping the head back, try drawing the chin more toward the center of the collarbones and drawing the base of the skull back. This will help you to focus the backbend more in the thoracic spine, broadening the chest and releasing some of the tightness in the pectorals. In other words, mobilizing the areas that tend to feel stuck in a backbend while stabilizing the areas that are inherently less stable (in this case, the neck). (And here’s an interesting tidbit: Some yoga traditions say that keeping some tone at jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) helps us to retain some of our inner fire as we practice!)
Always Following a Backbend with a Forward Fold
Counterposing is a major part of an asana sequence, but it may not be as straightforward as you think (pun intended). Balasana (child’s pose) after dhanurasana (bow pose) or apanasana (knees to chest) after urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow/wheel pose) are common examples of extreme forward folding after extreme backbending. Having seen students in back spasms as a result of this sequencing, I am not at all comfortable with teaching this type of progression.
Now, you may argue, “I do this all the time,” or “Isn’t a standard sun salutation fraught with such backbend-to-forward-fold movement?” And true, your practice may not result in muscle spasms or even a grouchy ache in the lumbar area. But just because this transition doesn't bother you, it doesn't mean it isn’t painful for others. The two main muscle groups that stabilize the spine are extensors and flexors. The extensors are attached to the back of the spine. The flexor muscles are in the front and include the abdominal muscles. When these oppositional muscles are engaged in rapid succession (like when you go from a deep backbend right into a deep forward bend), the result can be spasm and/or a jarring effect to the nervous system. (There is a busy highway of nerves in the lower back that may not be used to such intense stimulation!) So it's good for teachers to play it safe and avoid offering a post-backbend forward fold as the only option.
As far as surya namaskar (sun salutation) is concerned, the transitions are usually not as extreme (deep) as the ones mentioned above. When moving on single breaths in a heat-building practice like sun salutes, there is neither the same duration nor intensity as when a posture is held and refined over several breaths.
All I’m saying is, you can make the backbend-to-forward-bend transition a little less extreme by incorporating more axial extension/neutral spine poses between deep backbends and forward bends. For example, it would be ideal to pause in a transitional spine-lengthening pose like dandasana (staff pose), supta dandasana (lying staff pose), or downward dog. These poses involve forward bending at the hips, but in them, unlike in paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), balasana, or apanasana, the lumbar spine is still concave. Thus, these options are less physically stressful and serve well as a mindful transition immediately following backbends.
Exploiting the Lumbar Curve
I have a strong urge to hug every little gymnast I see who has been encouraged to exploit his/her lumbar curve into an exaggerated lordosis (inward curvature). I’m sure there are conscientious coaches and teachers with deep respect for keeping balance in the bodies of young athletes and dancers who don’t encourage this, and I applaud them. But I also see adults in my yoga therapy practice, often former dancers or gymnasts, who used to have “amazing backbends” and are now in pain. The same competitive “hinging back at the waist” so common in dance and gymnastics has found its way into yoga classrooms in the form of jammed up versions of natarajasana (dancer pose), eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged king pigeon pose), and purna bhujangasana (full cobra with the toes touching the back of head), to name a few.
One reason why excessive lumbar extension can be suboptimal is that it compresses the lumbar discs and puts them at risk of herniation. The discs are being pushed anteriorly (forward) by compression on the discs’ posterior side, just as compression on the anterior side pushes them posteriorly (backward) in flexion. In other words, it’s not just pushing the discs too far back (like in an overly rounded forward bend) that we need to be concerned about in yoga class; excessive arching, which pushes the discs forward, can be problematic too.
Further, when we repeatedly force our backbends into the lumbar spine through excessive lumbar extension, it causes these muscles (spinal extensors) to overwork, leading to the discomfort that often shows up when transitioning to forward folds.
This is why it’s so important to distribute the backbend evenly, to (again) focus on mobilizing the thoracic spine and opening through the chest, while finding more length and stability in the lumbar spine and the cervical spine.
When entering and sustaining a backbend, allow for a slight nutation of the top of the sacrum (a gentle, controlled anterior tilt) to avoid overarching in the lumbar. Adequately warming up by preparing the quadriceps (especially rectus femoris), iliopsoas, and abdominals for backbends is also important for avoiding a tendency to focus the backbend primarily in the lower back. Examples of good warm-ups to use when preparing for more complicated backbends would be setu bandha (bridge pose), keeping the feet and knees parallel while reaching the tailbone toward the knees, a lunge like anjaneyasana with a slight anterior tilt of the pelvis, or the deeper lunge, King Arthur’s pose (anjaneyasana with the back knee and shin supported by a wall).
Distributing the stretch benefits to the areas of the body that often feel "tight" in backbends (such as the upper chest and pectorals), and activating the areas of the body that need to "wake up" (such as the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine) embodies the underlying life skills that yoga espouses: If we continue doing the same things over and over, whether in backbends or relationships, the habit patterns and tendencies we develop (called samskaras and vasanas in the yoga tradition) become impediments to our well-being. When we begin to change those patterns, we gain valuable insights about our bodies and ourselves.