Backbend poses in yoga can be amazing heart openers for creating space across the front of the chest, and help to counteract poor posture which is a common issue in modern life.
However, they’re also a group of poses that are frequently practiced inaccurately by both new and experienced yogis alike. We tend to think of yoga as being a safe, low impact activity, but poses performed with incorrect intention or alignment can put you at greater risk of injury and pain.
Why big backbends may be unsafe
There’s often a disconnect between the big sweeping backbend examples we see in images on social media and even yoga studio advertising, and what most peoples’ bodies are capable of.
For many individuals, big backbends feel liberating. They help increase the space for your lungs to fill, they strengthen the back and help to elongate the spine. But when we force ourselves into a backbend or we’re missing something about the setup, it can compromise our lower back and sometimes our neck.
Also, if you spend a lot of your day sitting down, this tends to shorten the hip flexors and often leads to tightness through the chest. Then we come into a yoga class and expect our body to open up fully in the opposite direction within 30 minutes to an hour; this can put the lower back at risk even further. Read on to learn how to perform them safely.
Don’t focus on your back
Yes, we know that sounds counterintuitive since we’re talking backbends here, but setting up for backbends actually involves other parts of the body:
- Lengthen the spine – we want to create space between the vertebral discs, not compress them downwards. Extend long from your tailbone through to the crown of your head.
- Draw your chin towards your chest – this helps lengthen the back of the neck. People often tilt their head back to open at the front of the throat and create a deeper backbend shape; this puts strain on the neck and puts the cervical spine at risk.
- Open through the chest – pull out through your heartspace and draw your shoulderblades together to create a sensation of lift and buoyancy, rather than forcing a bend in your back itself.
- Open through your hip flexors – creating space where your hips hinge at the front of the body
Making sure your body is warmed up by doing smaller backbends before you tackle the big poses like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) or Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) can help prep your body for bigger movements to reduce risk of strains, sprains and muscle tears.
Brace through the belly
Rather than allowing your ribcage to flare open as you bend through your back, draw the sides of your ribcage in towards each other to create a feeling of containment and strength in the belly. This helps to protect your spine and strengthen your TVA (Transverse Abdominis), although it means you may not be able to create as big a shape in your backbend.
Leave your ego at the door
If you’re particularly flexible, that’s even more reason not to skip the above steps. The ability to create big backbend shapes easily increases the risk of compromising the joints if you depend on your joint flexibility rather than your muscular strength. The ligaments in your joints can only stretch so far; they don’t bounce back again once stretched out to their limits, so activating the right muscles to stabilise the joints is important.
Also, if you’ve got other people in your class – whether it’s your teacher or other students – who are very flexible, you don’t need to compete with them so leave your ego at the door. Feel into the pose for a shape that is right for your body rather than copying what someone else’s body is doing.