When it comes to backbends, you might think of yourself as a very stiff person who could never get into urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow, also sometimes called wheel pose). Or you might be a yogi who receives attention and praise because you can easily grab your ankles in this very same pose. Either way, you might discover that an examination of the biomechanics of backbends changes the way you feel about them. Let’s take a closer look at how we can utilize movement awareness, coordination, and anatomical knowledge to avoid some of the mistakes that yogis commonly make in their backbends.
On an anatomical level, the main reason to practice backbends is to find thoracic spine mobility in the direction of extension. But spinal motion is dependent on many individual joints, and we all have certain spinal joints which move quite easily and others which feel more “stiff” or “stuck." These movement inconsistencies often combine to produce backbends in which we move too much at certain joints and not enough at others.
On an anatomical level, the main reason to practice backbends is to mobilize the spine in the direction of extension.
In anatomical terms, we refer to the areas that have excessive movement available to them as “hypermobile,” and those which don’t contribute much motion as “hypomobile." Hyper- and hypomobile areas often neighbor each other in the body because once a specific joint stops moving well, a neighboring joint will be required to move more than it should to compensate. Once an imbalance like this has developed, it is difficult (but not impossible!) to change because the body’s natural tendency is to continually move in the places where motion is already easy.
One classic hyper/hypomobility pattern in the body is the relationship between the thoracic spine/rib cage area (mid and upper back) and the lumbar spine (lower back). Most of us do not move very well in our thoracic spines. True, this area’s innate structure gives it a natural propensity toward less mobility to begin with, but most of us layer on daily habits like non-optimal breathing patterns, poor posture, and all-day sedentariness which result in thoracic spines that have become much less mobile than they should be. As compensation for this lack of movement in the thoracic spine, we tend to develop too much mobility in the lumbar spine, located directly below.
Instead of a supple, mobile thoracic spine whose 12 individual vertebrae articulate well, many of us develop a movement pattern in which the entire thoracic spine and rib cage area “gloms together” into one big unit. When this happens, the individual vertebrae of the upper and mid back move much less during backbends; the whole rib cage unit keeps its original shape and simply “tips back” in space—a movement often referred to as “forward rib cage” or “rib thrust."
When we allow rib thrust to happen in our backbends, the "healthy spinal extension" that we may well believe we’re doing can actually be more accurately described as "very little extension in the thoracic spine and too much extension (hyperextension) in the upper lumbar spine." In other words, instead of a well-distributed curve throughout the whole spine, there is very little curve in the upper and mid back, and too much curve in the low back. This movement pattern is extremely common in backbends, and ends up placing excessive compressive and shearing forces on the lumbar spine.
How do we know if we are using this unhelpful compensation strategy during backbends? The first and most obvious sign is the experience of pain or discomfort in the area of the low back during or after backbending. Pain and discomfort are sure signs that a backbend is not evenly distributed, and this is actually a very common experience for many yogis. If you pay close attention the next time you’re in asana class, you might notice that many students who attempt urdhva dhanurasana exhibit signs of over-efforting and strain such as shallow, labored breathing and grimaced faces, and when they lower down from the pose, they seem very relieved—like they just had to push their bodies into extreme discomfort in order to achieve the pose, and that discomfort has, at last, come to an end. A well-executed backbend, however, should feel manageable and easeful—not strained and uncomfortable.
How do we know if we are using this unhelpful compensation strategy during backbends?
The second indication that a backbend is not well-coordinated is visual: What does the shape look like? A skillful backbend utilizes a moderate amount of motion across many joints to achieve what looks like a smooth, curved arc all along the body. As Todd Hargrove writes in his book A Guide to Better Movement:
We can apply this innovative “arches not angles” concept to asana practice. When we look at a body performing a backbend, we ideally want to see a smooth, even arc across the entire body. This appearance tells us that the spine has moved into a healthy amount of extension, spread evenly across all 24 vertebrae. But this is not what we see when we look at many backbends. Instead of a smooth, curved arc along the front of the body, we often see front low ribs which have protruded forward from the abdominal flesh, forming a pointy prominence—a perfect example of an “angle” instead of an “arch." Front lower ribs which visibly poke forward like this are an indication that a yogi has moved into “rib thrust” in their backbend.
And if we look along the back line of the body in a backbend, instead of a uniform archway, we often see a lumbar spine which is excessively curved (especially at the place right where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet—the vertebral segments of T12/ L1, L1/L2, etc.), and a thoracic spine which is virtually flat. This is an example of a “sharp angle” followed by a “flat line”—a clear indication that the lumbar spine has moved too much in the backbend while the thoracic spine has contributed relatively little motion.
The main way to evenly distribute the load to the spine in backbends is to understand how to stabilize the areas that are already quite mobile (i.e., the lumbar spine) so that we can mobilize the areas where we are more movement-challenged (i.e., the thoracic spine). Learning how to control rib thrust in backbends is an important step in this process. We now know that when we rib thrust, the bottom front ribs visibly protrude forward as the entire rib cage “tips backward” in space. To mitigate this unwanted action, we can draw our front low ribs “in and down," which will use our abdominals to create a “tipping forward” of the rib cage as a whole. We should begin this movement as we prepare to enter our backbend and then maintain this stabilization throughout the entire pose. This pulling in of the front ribs should encourage a lifting up of the back ribs and will create more optimal alignment throughout the whole spine.
Ask yourself, “What kind of structure am I building through my practice?"
We should also skip backbend variations in which lumbar hyperextension is an inherent requirement of the pose. These shapes might look “deep” and “graceful” on an aesthetic level, but they aren’t creating positive change in our bodies on a functional or structural level. Ask yourself, “What kind of structure am I building through my practice?" Is it one that’s going to last for ages, or one that’s aesthetically quite marvelous in the moment, but due to the inherent laws of physics, bound to crack and crumble before long? Try taking a milder version of these deep backbends instead (don’t hesitate to integrate props into your poses!) and strive for that smooth, even, stable arch whose foundation is rooted in body awareness and movement integrity.