Backbends are a great way to undo the flexing of our spines that comes with everyday activities like sitting at a desk, looking at our phones, etc. When we backbend we extend our spine, which is the opposite of how we spend most of our days. If you think about it, our whole lives are spent in a hunched forward position: driving, working, checking our phones, cooking, changing our baby's diaper, knitting, petting our dog, and the list goes on. Our spine is designed to move in all directions but its a "use it or lose it" situation! Because of this, backbends can be intense and even painful if you’re not used to them. I remember I used to hate backbends just last year but once my body opened up I started craving them! I put together three quick tips on how help make your backbend practice safer and more enjoyable.
Tip 1: Open Up Your Hip Flexors, Quads, and Psoas Muscle
The hip flexors are a group of muscles located in the front of your hips that can get tight from sitting for long periods of time. When these muscles are tight, they can limit your range of motion during backbends and even cause pain, especially in the lumbar spine (your low back). When we backbend, we're opening up through our entire front body so its important to remember the front of our hips!
To open up your hip flexors and quads before you start any type of backbend practice, try some of these yoga poses:
King Arthur (low lunge with grabbing the back foot)
Dragon pose (lizard with grabbing the back foot)
Wall-or couch assisted quadriceps stretch
Pigeon pose is also a good option if you stay upright, then it targets the back leg
Additionally, opening up your psoas muscle - which is located deep within your core - will help you find greater depth in your backbends while also helping relieve lower back pain.
The psoas can be hard to reach but one of my favorite stretches is the 90-90 lunge:
Its like a Low Lunge but you keep your knees in a 90-90 angle instead of letting the hips come forward. Really tuck your pelvis under, imagine that you have a tail that you're trying to tuck between your legs. Interlace your fingers and press into the front thigh as you tuck your chin to your chest. You might feel this one deep in your abdomen! Hold for 5-10 DEEP breaths and repeat 2-3 times.
Tip 2: Strengthen Your Core
Having a strong core will provide stability while doing backbends and it can help protect your lumbar spine from pain and/or injury. I love doing transverse abdominis work to really feel strong from the inside and also some stabilizing work with various plank variations. These types exercises will engage all the muscles in your core so you can find more stability when doing backbends, and when your brain feels like you're stable it'll allow for a greater range of motion!
If you want some great TVA and core stabilizing workouts, check out my Pilates & Strength category in The Yoga Studio!
I have quite a few core classes that are less than 10 minutes, so it doesn't have to take long to work on this crucial step of your backbend practice!
Tip 3: Open Up Your Upper Back
Opening up through the upper back is a game changer when it comes to backbends! Lets start off with some very simple spine anatomy.
Your spine has 3 parts:
the lumbar spine (low back)
the thoracic spine (upper/middle back)
the cervcial spine (neck)
The lumbar and cervical spine are the most flexible; these areas both allow for a lot of flexion (forward bending), extension (backbending), and rotation. The thoracic spine however, which is your upper/middle back, is mainly built for rotation so it doesnt have the same level of flexion/extension. Your ribs attach to your thoracic spine and inside your rib cage is your heart and lungs. So one could imagine that too much flexion and extension might not be great for those vital organs! The vertebrae and facet joints in the thoracic spine are built differently than those in the cervical and lumbar spine, in order to allow for more rotation and not as much extension/flexion, while the vertebrae of the lumbar and cervical spine are built for their specific purposes, e.g. the lumbar vertebrae are much larger than the others because they're carrying more weight! The cervical vertebrae are smaller because they're just meant to carry the weight of your head, not your whole body, but they're ALSO designed for super mobile movements so that you can move your head in all different directions (which isnt needed in the rest of the spine)! Isnt the body fascinating??
"Ok thats all fine and dandy, but what does this mean for my backbend practice?" you might be thinking. Here's why this is important: Most people dump into their low back and neck when starting their backbend journey. This is quite natural because we intuitively want to bend where we feel like we can bend, right? But this can lead to pain and even injuries over time. We want our backbends to be as smooth and even as possible, stretching through the whole spine. So while the thoracic spine might not extend as much as the cervical and lumbar, we still want it to be as open as it possibly can! In addition, if you spend your days hunching forward (which we already determined most of us are) chances are you have rounded shoulders which also impacts your backbends! If we can open up through the shoulders, we'll also get deeper into our upper back - and from here we can have safe, enjoyable, and even crave-worthy backbends!
To open up the thoracic spine and shoulders before practicing deeper backbends (or any backbends really) I love doing rotations and some passive stretches.
How to do thoracic rotations:
Start by laying on your side with your legs at a 90 degree angle, arms stretched out in front of you and palms together. As you take a deep breath and exhale, slowly rotate the top arm along across the body towards the floor behind you, allowing gravity to work its magic and deeply stretch and rotate your thoracic spine. Do 10 repetitions and then hold for 10 really deep breaths (about 60 seconds). Do this on both sides.
Examples of passive upper back & shoulder stretches:
Supported fish pose with blocks
Puppy pose with elbows elevated on yoga blocks, a bed, or couch
Puppy pose with the wall
Hold these for 5-10 really deep slow breaths and repeat 2-3 times.
In addition, you can work on more active mobility in these areas with things like shoulder flossing, Supermans, Swimmers, locust lifts, etc. Its always important to have stability alongside flexibility, to ensure a safe practice.
It's normal to feel intimidated by challenging postures like deep backbends if you're just starting out with yoga! But following these three tips – opening up hip flexors/quads/psoas muscle; strengthening your core; opening up upper back/shoulders – will make sure that each time you practice backbends it gets easier and more enjoyable! Give these tips a try and see how they change your yoga practice! And if you want classes focusing specifically on these areas, make sure to join The Yoga Studio!
See you soon, namaste!