Many yoga poses are named after animals and other things in the natural world that they…
Your Guide to Understanding Backbends
Backbends are powerful asanas that require both strength and flexibility in order to be practiced safely. Proper backbend yoga poses demand more of a yoga practitioner than simply having a naturally flexible spine. In order to get into different back bending asanas, several of the body’s muscle groups must be trained and strengthened regularly.
There are different categories of backbends, depending on which muscle groups need to coordinate with each other in order to create the necessary shape with your spine and body. It’s important to be aware of what’s happening in your body so that you can take the necessary precautions and engage the proper muscles or get support where needed.
Backbend Safety “Rules”
You may have heard your yoga teacher voicing the cue “tuck your tailbone” when prepping for a backbend. While this is a useful step (albeit anatomically incorrect), there’s more to backbend safety than just pointing your tailbone downwards, especially when you take into account which kind of backbend yoga poses you are practicing. One set of safety cues may be suited for Chakrasana (Wheel Pose), but may be inappropriate for Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).
No matter what kind of backbend you practice, there are a few safety rules that cover all of them:
- Warm up – include shoulder openers and quad stretches
- Think SPACE, not compression – elongate from your sacrum, through your spine and up to your neck
- Unclench your jaw
- Keep your belly engaged but supple
- Keep your breaths deep and long
Keeping these general safety guidelines in mind, here are the different categories of backbends and how to safely practice asanas in them.
1. Traction Backbends
Backbends that use traction are the ones that deepen with gravity. The muscles on the front side of your body must be active in order for you to be able to support yourself.
- Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
- Chakrasana (Wheel Pose)
- Camatkarasana (Wild Thing)
Depending on your anatomy and level of flexibility, your buttocks may have a natural tendency to clench together while you’re in a deep, active traction backbend. This may happen because you, as well as many others, have tight hip flexors that prevent your pelvis from tilting backward. To compensate this, your butt cheeks may clench together to decompress your lower back and help you extend your hip joints.
The downside of this is that by tightening your butt muscles, you activate your gluteus maximus. This will indeed help your backbend by extending your hip joints, however, it may also create mis-alignment because your thighs rotate outwards and the muscles pull your thighbones to the side.
To correct this, focus on only tightening the lower half of your glutes instead of squeezing your buttocks. Engage your adductor muscles and gluteus minimus with an inward spiral rotation of your thighs.
2. Leverage Backbend Yoga Poses
Backbends that use leverage rely on the strength of your arms and legs for deepening the pose.
- Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
- Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
- Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose aka Lord of the Dance Pose)
- Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
- Eka Raja Kapotanasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose)
- Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose)
Backbends are known to release emotions. This may be because they’re heart opening asanas that allow you to expand your chest through your shoulders.
Although you’ll need to warm up your arms and shoulders in various positions depending on what kind of backbend you’re practicing, make sure to always keep your chest and heart open so that your shoulders may extend.
This is also exactly what you would do in a proper Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), i.e. move your arms as far away from your ribcage as possible.
Other muscle groups that you may not think about while you’re practicing backbends, are the ones in your legs. Properly stretched quads and hamstrings are also important when practicing backbends, as you’ll need the strength of your legs and arms to give you more leverage when you go deeper into the asana.
3. Contraction Backbends
Backbends that rely on contractions use your back muscles in order to counteract gravity. Backbends that have you lying on your belly without the support of your arms generally fall into this category.
- Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
- Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
Backbends are a perfect example of what Patanjali described as “sthrira sukham asanam” in the Yoga Sutras. This verse translates as: The posture should be a steady and comfortable seat.
This balance of strength and comfort (another word we can use is soft- or suppleness) should not only apply to your spine, but also to the front of your body, even if those muscles push against gravity in order to hold you in the pose.
Rather than tightening your core, which can shorten your ab muscles and hinder your backbend progress, engage your transverse abdominals. You can find these muscles when you pull your navel in towards your spine and up into your diaphragm. It may also help engage mula bandha by contracting your perineum.
Even if you’re in a backbend shape, you’ll still want your foundational alignment to follow Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Keep your knees and heels in line with your hips and make sure that you’re aware of whether your feet begin to turn outwards or inwards.
4. Passive Backbends
Passive Backbends are usually practiced as a warm-up for deeper backbends. You may either use your arms to hold up your upper body, or, as is the case in Yin Yoga or Restorative Yoga classes, you may use props that will allow you to relax into the asana with only the most minimal muscle engagement.
- Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx Pose aka Seal Pose)
- Bitilasana (Cow Pose)
- Anahatasana (Heart Melting Pose)
Relax your glutes and allow yourself to fully melt into the Passive Backbend. If you’re using props, take advantage of them and use as many bolsters, blocks, towels, or folded blankets as you need in order to create something comfortable to lay back on.
When coming out of a passive backbend, move slowly and first carefully roll over to one side before attempting to sit or stand up.
Conclusion regarding Backbend Yoga Poses
Back bending asanas require more than just a naturally flexible spine. Different backbends involve the coordination of various muscle groups. In order for you to go deeper into the individual poses and strengthen your practice as a whole, these asanas must be practiced with proper alignment and safety in mind.
When you practice backbends regularly, you may find that you end up releasing a lot of emotions. This is quite normal because these types of asana require you to expand your chest, which, in turn, opens up your heart and allows you to feel more connected to yourself and others. So make sure that you become aware of your own emotions and that you allow them to show up.