Ask any yogi or aerialist about their goals and no doubt they include working on back flexibility. If they were a gymnast or ballerina as a child they may remember doing walk overs and wearing “foot-hats” and hope that their muscle memory allows them to return to being so supple and bendy. Yet, even for yogis who only took up the practice as adults, we all dream of beautiful lines and elegant shapes created by a strong and flexible back arch.
But what is the best way to practice bending backwards? Are all bodies able to do back bends?
Firstly, let’s look at what you are trying to achieve. Vertical Wise published a great article in 2016 showing how, depending on which part of your back is naturally more flexible, what your back bend may look like (in an ideal world where we can all sit on our heads!)
It has been said that although you can lengthen the muscles, tendons, and fascia, that support the spine, the actual space between the bones is set as of puberty (Source). This does not mean that we should all stop flexibility training all together, but it does help us set realistic goals and learn to approach the practice of back bending from a safe perspective.
When you attempt a back bend pose on the floor, you are enlisting the help of your hips, glutes, quads, shoulder, lats, and your neck. Therefore, one of the first points to consider when embarking on safe back bending is that you also need to stretch and learn to engage these other parts of your body. Injuries, especially in your lower back, may occur from continually putting pressure on the spine in an attempt to push deeper and deeper.
Stretches for your latissimus dorsi can be effective in helping to “open up” the upper back. Lunges and reclining poses that focus on the quads, hip flexors, and psoas, will also help to ensure the final poses are not putting too much strain on your lower back.
In each of these preparatory poses, try to think of opening the chest and staying long through the spine. Try not to throw your neck back more than necessary as this is also a common area for sprains and injuries. Yoga wheels and other props can help you form a safe shape as you learn to bend backwards, however learning how to hold a strong back bend should always be the goal, not just learning how to fall into one.
Different practitioners have opposing views about whether it’s a good idea to engage the glutes during back bends. It is possible that by engaging your glutes you can increase the stretch in your hip flexors, and reduce the load on your lumbar spine, but squeezing your butt may also externally rotate the legs and put you out of alignment. The glutes are made up of three muscles, two of which externally rotate the hip and one that internally rotates the hip. Learning to engage the lower gluteus minimus separately from the others may work in your favour to stabilise and increase the range of motion in your back bends. Practicing bridges from the floor with proper alignment will help you connect with this muscle. I also recommend reading this article by Roger Cole, Ph.D, for some simple and effective exercises to learn how to engage your glutes for safe back bends.
From a personal stand point, I have seen more improvement in my back flex and strength since joining a contortion class at the circus. I believe this is not only due to having professional instructors, but also due to the added diversity and consistency of my practice. In two, hour long classes a week we explore back bending from every angle – bridges and wheel pose, camel pose, bow pose, forearm stands, dancers pose, chest stands, as well as classic contortion positions for the more flexible students. Rather than just holding each shape as a static pose, we are encouraged to be actively entering and exiting the pose working to build strength in the posture as well as increasing our range of motion.
The many ways to enter/exit wheel pose include:
- lying on your back, hands over head, push up
- drop backs or walking your hands down a wall to the floor (and reverse back to standing)
- from a handstand, flipping over to land your feet on the floor or mat (and reverse back to standing)
- sitting, externally rotate one hand and push up, drawing an arc with your other hand until it reaches the floor underneath you (both sides)
Once you are in wheel pose there are also variations like lifting one leg, straightening both legs, or sinking your butt down to create a hollow back shape.
Some of these entries may feel better for your body than others. I still cannot drop back into a wheel pose, but I can get quite deep bends using the strength in my arms and legs to push up. I am still practicing my drop backs though, going back as far as I can from standing, holding and breathing, and then returning to standing with control and with focus on alignment.
“An honest way to train yourself into deeper backbends is to practice hands-free. When you remove your hands from backbends, you’re forced to work your core and spinal muscles. You can’t cheat how deep you get when your hands aren’t pushing you past what you can hold with integrity”
Dancers who have a tendency to hyperextend their elbows, may also benefit from practicing hands free as they won’t be putting any pressure on the joint until their hands touch the floor in the final presentation of the pose.
You can also go hands free dropping back in camel pose.
Or lifting hands free from the floor.
These are great exercises to add to your practice as they will strengthen your back and core and help you learn to connect with the muscles that will support your back bends. Training this way will ensure you are also not falling into a bend that you don’t have the strength to maintain.
It can be scary to start practicing back bends on your own. Try joining a flexibility or contortion class or start small and train with a friend to help as a spotter. From a yoga perspective, back bends are considered to
“stimulate the proper functioning of the digestive system, help preserve the health of the vertebrae and spinal disks, and open the body to deep diaphragmatic breathing.” (ref)
You may also find that regularly practicing back bends improves your posture as well, countering bad habits of slouching at you desk and in front of your computer. A friend used to move her laptop to the floor and work in sphinx pose, challenging her upper back and shoulders for up to 20 minutes or more. If you have a flexible work space this is a great way to add some extra back bend practice to your day. Just be careful not to overdue it, remembering to pull your shoulders back and down and keep the neck long as you look forwards.
Finally, every back bending session should be matched with counter poses. In any yoga class if your training involved lots of back bends, on the floor or with props, counter these poses with some forward bends – seated forward bends, plough pose, wall assisted forward bends, and some spinal twists. Don’t forget to breathe deeply into the upper, middle, and lower back in these poses and remember to lengthen and extend. Relaxing with shavasana and giving your body time to assimilate your practice will also support you adapting to your new bendy self!
If you are interested in learning more about back bends, or would like to introduce some back bending poses into your own yoga practice, contact me for a Live Coaching Session!