Backbends, what a story! 3d episode: practice
In this last episode, you will find some useful tips to safely dive into the most known backbends.
But first don’t forget! The benefits of a backbend do not depend on how deep you bend. We are not all contortionists and the more important in yoga is to listen to your body. This is the best way to find your flexibility.
So practice smoothly and step by step without listening to your ego (I know this is not easy!).
Let’s begin with a little reminder of the basics for backbends:
- To back bend you need joints mobility especially from the shoulders, the chest and the hips. But to progress with your flexibility you need solid foundations. So it is important to get a strong core: it has to contract with the perineum (mix of uddyana bandha and mula bandha) in order to protect your lower back.
- Practitioners often release themselves backwards completely. The weight of their upper body is then all on their lower back. To protect this part of the body every backbend must be practiced in extending the front of the hips (hip flexors) and the ventral portion.
- The backbend happens mainly in the upper back.
- In general backbends must be avoid when blood pressure issues, headaches, insomnia or serious lower back, shoulder or neck injury.
With all that said, we can move into practice.
Always begin warming up your body first: work on the flexibility of the upper body (for example cross your fingers behind the back, roll your shoulders backwards and stretch the arms). Also work on the external rotation of the hips (butterfly pose is perfect for that). Then stretch the front of the pelvis (psoas) and the quadriceps with some low lunges. Finally practice some core exercises like planks and boat pose.
Another thing to remember: do not begin your practice of backbends with a very deep one like wheel. Go slowly towards them beginning with a series of sphinx, cobra, snake and a few upward facing dogs. You will then know if your back is ready for deeper backbends: if you already feel a compression in your lower back in those poses continue practicing them until you feel completely at ease.
When you practice backbends do not hesitate to help yourself with props or a wall. I will give you some examples below.
Furthermore whatever the backbend is, a natural mechanism takes place: the external rotation of the hips. In order to allow this rotation the gluteal muscles automatically contract.
However, in some backbends, especially the ones practiced back on the floor like wheel, knees tend to splay out. In particular it can cause a lack of stability.
As a result, you will often hear your teacher say to soften your glutes in order to avoid this collapsing.
Definitely it is not a good thing to have your glutes as hard as stone but relaxing them completely will put some other muscles under pressure while they are already stressed enough or they are not useful.
So what should you do?
To counteract the splay out of your knees you have to use complementary muscles: the fascia lata (they go along the external thighs) and the adductors (internal thighs). If you can’t activate these muscles place a block between your thighs and tighten it.
Let’s now talk more specifically about 3 of the main backbends.
Camel pose (Ustrasana)
Your glutes, quads and core are very important to practice this posture.
To begin it is best to place your hands on your lower back to support it and train the bending of the upper body while bringing your pelvis forwards contracting your quads.
If you can’t bring your pelvis forwards use a wall. Press your thighs and hips against it. Extend your ventral portion lifting your ribs up and place your hands on your lower back. Then bend your upper back backwards while sticking thighs and hips to the wall engaging your quads, glutes and core.
To extend the spine, do as if you wanted to bring the glutes and the sacrum on your heels. Contracting your glutes will help open your hips.
To protect your spine, engage your core during all the posture and even more when you go out of the bending. It will ease the lengthening of the ventral side and protect the spine against hyperextension.
To help your progression, you can put a block besides every heel to place the hands on it. The more you will gain flexibility the more your hands will go on your feet flat on the floor. As a step before this you can roll your toes under and place your hands on your heels.
In order to extend your shoulders backwards, contract the rhomboids and take big breaths to open your ribcage.
If you your neck is tight leave your chin on your chest.
Wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
In this pose, the front of the body stretches a lot. The muscles of the back of the arms, the elbows and the knees extend. The writs bend (avoid wheel pose if your wrists hurt). You also have to have great mobility in your shoulders so you have to stretch them before practicing.
To maintain the pose, hands and feet must be firmly rooted. The feet are hips wide apart.
Before doing a wheel practice some bridge poses to warm your body up. Back on the floor, lift your pelvis up contracting your hamstrings and glutes. In order to extend the back imagine that your hips go towards your heels and let the chest open towards the chin.
Don't forget to engage the external and internal muscles of your thighs in order to avoid your knees to splay out.
If this pose is a bit difficult maybe you are not ready for the wheel pose. So practice it until you feel at ease with it.
When you are ready, bring your hands just behind your shoulders, fingers poiting towards them. Press down hard et lift the pelvis up as seen above.
Go on pressing your palms hard into the floor and lift you chest up. You can take a little rest on your head but be careful to not compress the neck. Then engage the triceps and bring your shoulder blades towards each other using your rhomboids in order to help your chest lifting up. Finally, if possible, extend your legs engaging your quads to help your pelvis going up. Wheel is there!
Be sure that your knees are not splaying out using the internal and external muscles of your thighs and your core.
To go out of the pose proceed carefully: bend your elbows slowly and move your feet away from your hands while bending your knees.
If your shoulders are too tight, in order to relax the front of them contract the muscles of the upper back even more. Do as if you wanted to bring your hands closer to your feet. The chest will gently move above your shoulders.
If your wrists are not flexible enough, put blocks against a wall flat on the floor or diagonally. Place your hands on them and push into them. The wrists will thus bend less and be happier.
You can also use the blocks if your hips are tight but under your feet this time.
Finally if your knees are inexorably splaying out tighten a block between your thighs or fasten and tighten a strap around them in order to keep them hips wide apart.
Bow pose is a wheel pose but pelvis on the floor.
Hands and ankles are connected to help the lift of the torso and of the thighs.
If you can't reach your ankles with your hands use a strap. If your thighs are too tight you can add a cushion under them. To avoid hands or strap to slip out, flex your feet.
As the pubis is pressing into the floor the pose can be uncomfortable. Don't hesitate to put a cushion under your pelvis.
When you are ready, engage your glutes and hamstrings. It will extend the muscles in front of your hips. Contract the rhomboids in order to move the shoulder blades closer and to let the chest open itself.
To lift the torso, move your ankles backwards and let your ribs go away from the ground. Continue to stretch the front of the body to extend the back. If you feel any compression in the lower back, stop.
If you feel comfortable contract the quads and let the legs rise.
Backbends are perfect to boost your energy and to fight our natural tendency to stoop but you have to practice them carefully.
Forget the pictures of extreme backbends seen on Internet (often practiced by dancers or gymnasts) and listen to your body. As soon as you feel a compression or a hurtful stretch, take a step away or go out of the pose.
When you finish your sequence, do not flow directly with deep forward folds. Neutralize your spine with twists, downward facing dogs or a child's pose (without forcing on the lower back).