Backbending postures are an exquisite way to strengthen the spine and open the front of the chest. We tend to spend hours leaning over computers and rounding over cellphones to text, causing our shoulders to round forward, which can create a plethora of problems in the spine and the rest of the body. Along with cultivating healthy postural habits in our daily lives, working with backbends can help to bring balance back to the body.
The term “backbending” is often misleading as there are so many different components of the body that are working, not just the “back or spine.” A precise backbending practice is challenging because a heightened sense of bodily awareness is required to access the appropriate muscle groups to work efficiently in backbends.
The term "backbending" is often misleading as there are so many different components of the body that are working, not just the "back or spine."
In order for your students to reap the wonderful benefits of backbends, your asana sequences need to address very specific key actions. Regardless of which backbending posture you are working up to for your peak pose, these actions must be represented in your sequence. When you define and explain the actions of backbends, your students can start to understand and benefit from the pillars of backbending.
Let’s build an ustrasana (camel pose) sequence using these six effective ways to sequence a backbending practice.
1. Explore the Anatomy of the Spine
It’s important for students to understand the structure of the spine and how it moves while backbending. Begin your practice with savasana (corpse pose) or constructive rest (lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor) so that students can completely relax. Have them feel and visualize the curves of the spine. Students can feel the natural lordotic curves (inward curves) of the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back) naturally lift away from the floor, as the thoracic spine (middle and upper back) and sacrum (the triangle-shaped bone above the tailbone) press into the floor.
2. Create an Imprint
Now that your students have explored the natural curves of the spine, you can educate them on the importance of an “even” backbend (where the backbend doesn't occur only in the neck or the lower back, and visually you can see an even arch along the entire spine).
When backbending, it's common for students to hyperextend (backbend too much) in the lumbar spine, and to toss the head back, jamming the back of the neck, while not moving the thoracic spine much at all. Therefore, to create a seamless, even backbend, focus on backbending in the thoracic spine. Creating an “imprint” will help your students quickly identify the thoracic spine, which can then be referred to throughout their practice.
Have each student place the narrowest side of a yoga block between the shoulder blades (so that it lies vertically underneath their thoracic spine, from right below the bony notch of the C-7 vertebrae to the base of the shoulder blades.) Add another block at an appropriate height underneath the head for support (this will vary from student to student. The closer the block is to the ground, the deeper the backbend). The block pressing into the thoracic spine encourages an evenly supported backbend throughout the spine, which can serve as a cue to be reiterated throughout the practice.
3. Shoulder Awareness
What are the shoulders doing in your peak pose? In the case of ustrasana, the arms are extending at the shoulder joint. In a pose such as urdvha dhanurasana, or wheel pose, the arms are flexing at the shoulder joint. It is important to know what is happening in the shoulders to build and support your sequence. When preparing for ustrasana, you might first ask each of your students to hold a strap behind the back, hands shoulder-width apart, and to lift the hands away from the sacrum to create the necessary opening in the shoulders and chest. You can later recreate this action in a backbend like bridge pose with students either holding the strap or interlacing their hands underneath them.
4. Lengthen Hip Flexors
The hip flexors are commonly activated in everyday life when one sits for hours on end. So how do we stretch them out? Backbending, of course! Backbends demand hip extension, which is only possible if there is length in the hip flexors, specifically the psoas. The psoas originates at the bottom of the thoracic spine and all five vertebrae of the lumbar spine and runs down across the front of the pelvis to attach at the notch on the inner thighbone called the lesser trochanter. When this muscle restricts hip extension, it tends to pull the lumbar spine and the pelvis forward, destabilizing the lumbar spine and eliminating the possibility for a balanced curve. Consider incorporating poses that stretch and release tension in the hip flexors into your sequence. You might discover that they help to make backbends feel far more accessible!
The hip flexors are commonly activated in everyday life when one sits for hours on end. So how do we stretch them out?
5. Engage Strong, Neutral Legs
Legs provide a tremendous amount of support in backbending. Neutral legs—legs neither externally nor internally rotated—offer the best foundation for backbending. External rotation of the legs is especially common in backbends, and can compress the lower back. To reduce this crunching sensation and move toward an even backbend, work the legs toward neutral by rolling the inner thighs in toward one another. You can first work with cultivating neutral legs in standing poses like tadasana (mountain pose) and parsvottanasana (pyramid pose). Additionally, coming into bridge pose with a block between the inner thighs offers an excellent way to work the neutral leg action in a backbend.
6. Select Skillful Counter Poses and Cooldowns
You now know how to assemble the elements of a safe and effective backbend. You’ve learned how to move your students into their peak experience of ustrasana. You know how to attune them to the imprint behind the thoracic spine, the sensation of the heart lifting toward the ceiling, the extension of the arms opening the chest, the lengthening of the hip flexors, and the support of sturdy, neutral legs.
Even so, you may find that the opening sensation throughout the front of the body and the strengthening sensation of the back of the body (natural effects of backbending) can lead some students to want to close up like clams in child’s pose. Following a deep backbend (like camel pose) with an extreme forward bend (like child's pose) can be an unskillful way to practice over time. How many times does it take to bend a metal wire back and forth before it weakens and breaks? You can think of backbending and forward bending in the same way.
Following a deep backbend (like camel pose) with an extreme forward bend (like child's pose) can be an unskillful way to practice over time.
Instead, seek out neutral counterposes. In the case of ustrasana, vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) or virasana (hero’s pose) are readily accessible because you can easily come into them by bringing the spine back to neutral and then lowering the hips over the heels or between the heels.
Spend a few breaths here. Take a simple twist like bharadvajasana I (sage's twist) to release and neutralize the spine. From here, you can continue to move into simple forward bending poses, such as supta padanghushthasana (supine hand-to-big-toe pose), to cool down. Then rest the spine entirely for savasana.
All backbending practices share these important elements, and in one way or another need to be addressed for a skillful and challenging practice. Working with key actions deepens a student’s awareness of what is happening in the body and stokes the internal fire, which warms and opens the spine for a full and satisfying backbend.
Sample practice with peak pose ustrasana
- Constructive rest with blocks to support thoracic spine and back of the head
- Low lunge
- High lunge with “C arms” (hands behind the back with a strap)
- Ardha (half) parshvottanasana (“flat back” and hands supported by blocks)
- Setu bandhasana (bridge pose)
- Bharadvajasana I
- Supta padangushthasana