Bending over Backwards: Stay Safe in Your Yoga Practice


Backbend By Rachel Krentzman, PT, E-RYT for Active.com  April 2012

Backbends are an integral part of any Yoga practice.  The intention for backbends is to open the chest and rib cage in preparation for pranayama (breathwork).  For some, backbends are exhilarating and freeing while for others, they can be somewhat daunting and anxiety-producing.  For the first few years of my Yoga practice, I would experience back pain in most back bending postures and assumed that it was a ‘normal sensation’.  The truth is, if done correctly, backbends should be challenging but comfortable.  If you are not experiencing freedom in our backbends, it is a sign that you may be compressing our lumbar spine instead of increasing our range of motion.

Is it safe for my spine?

When done correctly, back bends help increase extension of the spine, a normal movement that is available to us based on the anatomical structure of the lumbar vertebrae.  There are approximately 55 degrees of extension available in the lumbar spine in most humans.  As we move up the spine, extension is more limited due to the shape of the thoracic vertebrae.  In optimal alignment, the lumbar spine should rest in a slight arch (lumbar lordosis), to properly carry the body weight and prevent low back issues.  When we lose the normal curve due to poor posture or frequent forward bending, there is an increased risk of low back pain, disc injuries and muscle spasm.

With all this in mind, it is important to increase the extension in our spine in order to maintain back health and mobility  and combat the constant effects of gravity that pull us forward.  In addition, back bends help increase lung capacity, prevent arthritis, alleviate depression, build stamina and energy as well as improve circulation, digestion and immune function. Backbends are said to help us move from the past into the present, and to help us open our hearts and let go of fear.

Backbends are safe for most individuals (contraindicated for those with spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis) as long as the body is warmed up appropriately and there is close attention paid to proper alignment and actions in each pose.  The beauty of Yoga is that detailed instructions can be given to help one attain ideal alignment so a greater sense of opening is experienced.  When we have pain in backbends, it is because something is breaking down in our execution of the pose.  Discomfort is an opportunity for us to practice more awareness and find a new, pain free way to work in the posture.

Common limitations

Individuals who have difficulty in backbends can be categorized into two main groups: those with tight muscles and ligaments and those who are naturally loose and highly flexible.  In every body, there is a dance between the qualities of stability and flexibility in the musculoskeletal system.  There is a myth that being more flexible is a sign of better physical health, however, the more flexible a person is, the more prone their ligaments are to injury in Yoga because they lack stability.  Conversely, those who are stiff are less likely to suffer an injury due to overstretching however, these individuals need to increase their flexibility so the pelvis and spine can move freely and avoid compression during activities of daily living.

Common restrictions for tight individuals include decreased range of motion in the chest, shoulders and hips (primarily in the hip flexors and external rotators).  These areas become restricted from prolonged sitting at a desk, driving, frequent forward bending and lifting and can even occur from overtraining the anterior chest musculature.  Runners, cyclists and avid athletes are prone to tightness in the hip flexors and external rotators as well.  These individuals need to focus on increasing flexibility in the chest and hips to prepare for backbends.

Hyper flexible people experience different difficulties in back bending postures. They often have tight hip flexors but compensate with overextension in the low back.  Core strength is usually lacking in these individuals, so they tend to ‘hinge’ at one segment in their spine over and over again instead of dividing the extension throughout the length of the spine.  In this case, the hyper mobile segment becomes more mobile while the tighter segments in the spine stay tight.  Years of ‘dumping’ into the low back without awareness can lead to injury as the segment bears all the work.  These individuals need to focus on stability and strength in their backbends, which may mean backing off a little to maintain the integrity of the pose and length throughout the entire spine.

How to practice correctly

Here are some important tips to help you achieve success in your back bending poses:

  • Warm up! In order to be ready for back bends, you must practice poses that open the chest, hip flexors, quadriceps and external rotators of the hip. It is also important to practice a couple of poses that encourage strength in the arms and legs to prepare for certain backbends.
  • Keep the front body long. “Back bends should really be called front body lengtheners,” says Jo Zukovich, a well known Iyengar Yoga teacher from San Diego.  While we are extending our lumbar spine, it is important to maintain length at the same time so there is more space and equal movement between each spinal segment.  The common mistake that leads to pain and injury is collapsing in the spine at one segment while in the backbend.
  • Internally rotate your hips. Internal rotation in the hips is essential in all backbends to avoid compression in the spine.  If we allow our hips to externally rotate (which will cause the knees to splay out), our stronger muscles, namely the gluteus maximus and external hip rotators, will contract.  By internally rotating the thighs, we turn off those stronger hip muscles and activate the deeper gluteal muscles which help to create more space.
  • Avoid gripping! The tendency in backbends is to contract the buttocks strongly which creates more compression and less freedom in the spine.  In addition, ‘tucking of the tailbone’ creates shortening instead of increased length in the spine.  Instead, think about lifting the lower belly to help the tailbone descend. This creates length while maintaining the integrity of the spine and core strength in back bends.
  • Don’t fight the backbend, GO FOR IT. Most people try to resist the back bend while they are doing it. It is safest to work on helping your lumbar spine move into extension at every level.  Focus on moving the spine into the body as if it were sinking into quicksand in order to safely increase extension in the lumbar spine.

Instructions for common backbends (hold each pose for 5-6 breaths):

1. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose): Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet in line with the hips.  Make sure the toes point straight ahead and that the knees are directly above the ankles when you lift your buttocks.  Press all four corners of the feet firmly into the ground and lift the outer hips up. Internally rotate the thighs so that the knees stay in line with the hips.  Roll the shoulders under and clasp the hands or hold a strap.  Press the outer shoulders and forearms into the ground to open the chest. Press the feet into the ground to lift the hips up. Relax the buttock muscles and use the thigh muscles (quads) to lift more.

2. Bhujangasana – ( Cobra Pose): Lie on your belly with the feet in line with the hips.(The classical version of this pose has the feet together, however taking the feet apart provides more space for the sacroiliac joint and is easier on the low back).  Place the hands directly under the armpits and keep the elbows close to your waist.  Press all 5 toes firmly into the ground, especially the pinky toe, which will help you maintain internal rotation in the thighs.  Inhaling, pull the floor towards you with your palms and extend the spine as you lift up.  Keep the shoulders away from the ears and squeeze the elbows into the waist tightly.  Focus on lengthening the spine as you come up and absorbing the vertebrae into the body one level at a time.

Modifications:

If there is discomfort in the low back:

  • Only come up a few inches off the ground.
  • Keep the forehead on the ground and practice the actions of the pose in a neutral position.

3.  Ustrasana – (Camel Pose) Start in a kneeling position with the feet hips distance wide.  Press all five toes equally into the ground and take the inner thighs back (internal rotation).  Place your hands on your sacrum and pull the sacrum down as you roll your shoulders back and lift the sternum.  Keep the thighs active and in line with the hips throughout the entire pose.  Lift your lower belly to protect the spine and slowly arch backwards, maintaining length in the lumbar spine as you extend.  Keep length in the front body.  Reach back for the heels.  Lift the chest away from the sacrum and let the neck extend back maintaining as much length in the cervical spine as possible.

Modifications:

  • If you have a neck injury, keep the chin tucked in towards the chest
  • Practice with your hands on blocks or on your sacrum instead of reaching for the heels.

4. Danurasana –  (Bow pose) –  This back bend is the safest because you are using the back muscles as you lift up against gravity.  Lie on your belly and reach for the ankles with your hands.  Roll the shoulders back and press the legs into the hands as you lift your legs and chest off the ground.  Keep your knees in line with your hips as you continue to lift up.

5.  Urdvah Danurasana – (Wheel Pose). This is an intermediate back bend and is best performed under the observation of an instructor.  Lie on your back with your feet in line with the hips. Make sure the feet are pointing straight ahead to prevent the knees from splaying out to the sides.  Press the hands and feet into the ground to lift your body off the ground into a back bend.  Spread the shoulder blades wide on your back as you move the sternum away from the hips. Roll the inner thighs down towards the floor as you move your hips away from your head, maintaining length in the lumbar spine. Lift the lower belly for the duration of the pose.

Modifications:

  • To decrease the arch in the lower back you can place your feet on a chair or your hands on blocks in this pose.
  • Place a belt around the center of your thighs and press out into the strap to help relieve low back discomfort.

Every pose in Yoga leaves us with a certain residue.  When practiced with safety and mindfulness, your experience after backbends should be one of exhilaration, clarity and serenity.