Free Your Backbend. Simple tips and opening exercises to make backbending more comfortable (and anatomically correct).
The term “backbending” is almost deceptive because the essence of back bending postures is in activating the energy, strength and mobility of the spine- a process which calls for whole body (and mind) effort and attention. Backbends not only strengthen and lengthen the entire spine, but they also encourage the heart to lift and open. In some cases the heart has a chance to lift above the head, a concept as well as a feeling that can be extremely intimidating at first… until, intimidation yields to liberation.
Backbend postures allow us to access the 4th chakra, or energy center in the body, anahata chakra, the center of love and compassion. A general tip for backbenders near and far is to practice from that very space proceeding with care and compassion. Backbending postures help us conquer fear while establishing strength and confidence. The strength of the arms and legs as well as the opening through the hips and shoulders all have a chance to shine in these energizing and purifying poses. Try these tips to lift your heart and take any feeling of “breaking” out of you back:
I. Stretch your hip flexors
Sitting, running, walking, basically any action that requires getting out of bed, triggers flexion through the front of the thighs. When left unstretched, shortened hip flexors can affect the position of the pelvis. Ultimately, this imbalance affects the alignment and mobility of the lower back. Try these pose variations to elongate your hip flexor muscles.
Bridge on the wall- Start in a reclining position facing a wall (much like you would position yourself to move into a traditional bridge pose) feet, aligned with ankles, aligned with knees aligned with hips, instead of pressing into the feet on the floor, walk the feet up the wall- maintaining alignment with the knees (90 degree angles) press into the feet on the wall and lift the hips. Bringing the hands to the lower back can provide some additional support. To go deeper, lift the right leg off the wall (similar to doing a one legged shoulder stand, stretching the toes towards the upper body) using the support of gravity for the right leg and focusing attention on the left leg as it continues to push into the wall. Bring the right leg back to the wall before moving onto the left side.
Lunge on the wall- from a tabletop position, toes and heels touching the wall, step the right foot next to the right thumb, lifting the chest and reaching the crown of the head to the sky, bringing both hands to the top of the right thigh, interlacing the fingers, drawing the pelvic bones up towards the floating ribs, allowing the tailbone to ground. To take this deeper, drop the fingertips down in line with the right toes as you move the back left knee toward the wall, allowing the toes to point upwards.. To intensify the stretch for the hip flexors, the fingertips can be supported on blocks placed on either side of the body or gradually work back on to the top of the thigh. (note: when you slide the left knee towards the wall, the front right foot might need to shift back adjusting to maintain alignment with the knee).
II. Open your upper back- Essentially activating the muscles in the upper back creates the space for the liberating, light aspect of the pose in lifting the heart. Additionally, alleviating “hunchback” syndrome that plagues so many of us from years of poor posture as a result of being hunched over desks, keyboards, etc.
Dolphin pose variation- Using the arm position associated with the classic headstand interlacing the fingers, allowing the forearms to create a V- shape, but keep your head off the floor. This will help to stretch and strength the shoulders, while opening the middle and upper back. Once you interlace the fingers, slip one pinky inside the other hands palm, assuring you have a flat surface from your outer hands to your wrists. Placing the V-shaped forearms on the floor, elbows shoulder width distance apart and a few inches in front of the shoulders. Press firmly down into the ground from the outer hands to the elbows. Gazing to the toes, walking the toes towards your nose, lifting the hips as if you were in a downward facing dog. As you press into the forearms, try to create length across the collarbones.
Fish pose- Lay down on your back with the legs straight and feet together. Place your hands, palms down, underneath your hips. Pressing down into the elbows and forearms, keeping them in line with the side body, drawing scapula into your back, exhale, with your inhale, lift upper torso and your head away from the floor. Depending on much you lift your chest and arch your back, the crown of the head or the back of the head will rest of the floor. (mindful there is no pressure on the neck, the elbows and forearms are doing the lifting)
III. Use your legs- often times when we try to avoid “sensation” in the legs, we inadvertently dump the pressure in our backs. A really good backbend involves a lot of sensation (positive sign that the legs are working hard) in the legs so that there can be opening and release for the spine.
Utkatasana or “fierce” pose-From tadasana, standing tall, hands down alongside the body, deep bend in the knees. Fingertips can act as a measuring tape, grazing the ground below. Keep the deep bend in the knees, reach the arms up overhead. Lift the chin to stretch the throat, allow the shoulders to drop and firm on the back. Weight drops to the heels, inner thighs draw towards one another and ground downward. Let the tailbone ground down toward floor and inward toward the pubis. Energetic lift from the pubis to the sternum. To intensify, peek to the toes, trying to see the toes beyond the knees. If you can’t, try to make that adjustment without compromising too much of the bend in the knees. Instead keep shifting weight back to the heels and drawing the shins back.
Dhanurasana “bow” pose- lying on your belly, arms and legs extended. On an exhale bend your knees bringing your feet as close in to your buttocks as possible. Reach the arms back, grabbing your ankles with your hands, palms facing in. On an inhale, start to kick your heels away from your hips, lengthening the fronts of the thighs and keeping your knees aligned with the hips (no wider). Lift your thighs away from the floor, thinking about creating space between calf muscles and hamstrings and you activate the leg muscles to lift upper torso and head off the floor.
IV. Internal rotation of the inner thighs-internal rotation of the hips is essential in any backbend to avoid compression in the spine. If we allow our hips to externally rotate (which will cause the knees to splay out, possibly along with the feet) the gluteus Maximus and external hip rotators (our larger and more overactive muscles will contract). Try these tips to work on internally rotating the thighs and access the deeper muscles in the gluts and hamstrings which will create more space.
-salabasana, “locust” pose, lying on your belly with the hands down alongside the body. Palms facing up. Exhale to prep and on an inhale begin to activate the legs stretching the tops of the feet and toenails back, ground inner thighs downward. Imagine squeezing a block between the inner thighs as they spiral inward. Lifting from the pelvic floor, drawing pelvic bones towards one another as the tailbone anchors and draws inward towards the pubis. Pubis lifting up toward the sternum. As if there was an ice cube underneath the belly button and you are trying not to melt it, even lift the belly button and floating ribs. Keep the knuckles of the hands down continuing to slide the fingertips back towards the toes and breathing across the chest. Imagine lifting everything off the floor except for hip bones and knuckles.
-ustrasana, “camel” pose variation using a block between the inner thighs. (Note you may not open your knees as wide as usual when using the block-that is part of the exercise in using the block, narrowing the space between hips, knees, ankles and keeping more parallel lines to assure internal rotation of the thighs). Kneeling, feet and shins press firmly into the mat, hips width distance and parallel. Place block between the thighs (some like to place block higher up on the thighs as if to activate an extension of mula bandha-pelvic floor lock-related to the inner thigh connection that anchors through the big toe mound.) the tailbone grounds downward and the hip points draw towards one another. Using the inner thigh rotation to support the block between the thighs, the hamstrings and quadriceps are energized. Bring hands to waist pointing the thumbs down, squeezing elbows together, shoulder blades squeeze together as the front body lifts. Keep pressing into the feet, maintaining activation through the inner thighs, assuring the inward rotation of the thighs and anchoring of the tailbone. Allow the gluts to ease from tension thus releasing the sacro-iliac joint ultimately freeing up space in the lumbar spine.