6 Tips To Help Improve Your Backbends
In this post, I will cover 6 tips to help you improve your backbends, so that you can practice them safely and happily. Because if you're in pain, you're probably not enjoying your practice all that much.
There's lots of great reasons to practice backbends, including:
increases your spinal mobility
counters the effects of hunching over a computer screen
increases the range of motion in your hips and shoulder joints
stretches your heart and front of chest
decreases back pain (when practiced properly)
relieves tension in the neck and shoulders
and finally, they give you a natural energy boost.
I think people are a bit intimidated by the word "backbend." I know it's been a daunting word for me. It conjures up a vision of some bendy yogi with an impossible-looking curve in their spine. Not to mention, backbends can kinda hurt. Particularly if you're not engaging your muscles properly.
So let's talk backbends. In this post, we'll cover some physical, as well as mental tips.
(Disclaimer- It's best to begin a backbend practice under the guidance of a knowledgeable instructor, and you should consult your doctor before doing so. People with heart problems or high blood pressure may be advised to avoid backbending.)
1. Let Go Of Expectations
The first thing I would like to address is to let go of any expectations you have about how your backbend should "look" or feel (as long as it's not painful- always back off if you're feeling any type of pain).
Maybe I'm putting this point first more for myself, but I need reminded of this constantly. It's something I personally struggle with. Expectations can make it difficult to feel satisfied, which leads to unhappiness.
If I looked at the above picture and thought, "wow, what a terrible wheel," (which I have), that's only going to make me feel bad, and what good is that when we practice yoga to make ourselves feel better?
Therefore, it's so important to observe your practice with an open heart and mind. Acceptance is key. Accept where you are at today, and know that with practice, all will come.
When you notice that you're judging yourself, either in a negative or positive way, simply acknowledge what you're thinking, and then turn it into a thought of gratitude.
Thank your body for being able to move the way it does. And then thank yourself for investing your time in a mentally and physically rewarding practice.
By acknowledging your "judging mind" in your yoga practice, this will begin to carry on into your everyday life.
Let go of expectations. Let go of judgement. Of others, but even more importantly, yourself.
2. Understand What Muscles Are Stretching And Contracting
Okay, let's talk about what actually goes on in the body during a backbend. This will help you visualize what your spine looks like when you backbend, which is important to help maintain a safe practice.
When backbending, the front of the body is stretching, while the backside of the body is contracting. This means that the front body muscles need flexibility, while the back body muscles need strength.
It is important to note that you may need to work on strengthening certain muscles before attempting more advanced backbends, such as Wheel Pose. These include
You may also want to work on flexibility for the following areas for advanced backbends:
Identifying what areas of your body need strengthened or relaxed will allow you to practice backbending in a more mindful, safe way.
In my own practice of poses like Bridge and Wheel, I have noticed that my quads are keeping me from opening up into an even curve. Therefore, I know that I need to work on stretching out my quads and hip muscles to help improve these postures. My shoulders could also benefit from some opening up as well.
You can learn what areas of your body are overcompensating and what areas need strengthening, by taking a video of yourself practicing. Not only will this help you identify what you need to work on, but this is also an excellent exercise for tip #1.
3. Properly Warm Up
There's a foundation that we build upon to practice backbends safely, and you should never attempt backbends without warming up properly first.
Different backbends require different types of warm ups. For example, wheel pose is a total-body posture and the spine, hips, shoulders, and wrists need to be warmed up accordingly.
Gentle backbends when lying on the stomach, such as Baby Cobra, Cobra, and Locust, are perfect for preparing the spine for deeper backbends.
It is best to gently warm up the spine with some Cat-Cow flows first, the ultimate yoga, warm-up postures.
Upward Facing Dog is a common backbend found in vinyasa flows. It is good to take a couple Baby or "Teenage" Cobras before coming up into your first Upward Facing Dog, especially if you're new to the practice.
And always listen to your body. When you begin to feel compression in the lower spine, that's your body signally to your brain that you have gone too far, or that you are not engaging your muscles properly. This we will discuss in the next section.
4. Engage The Proper Muscles
This is a very common mistake yoga practitioners don't even realize they make. And for good reason. When backbending, we're arching our spine, so it makes sense to create that exaggerated arch in the lower spine.
But this is not practicing safe backbend techniques, and can cause pain and unnecessary pressure in the spine.
Instead, we are looking for a very slight anterior tilt of the pelvis. This means to ever-so-slightly tuck the tailbone under, rather than up.
It's subtle, but this slight movement will make your backbends much safer, and set you up with good habits to take with you into deeper backbends.
You can see the difference in my lower spine in these two pictures. And you can feel the difference for yourself. Experiment by laying on your stomach, and lifting and tucking your tailbone.
The anterior tilt of the pelvis creates stability, which is essential when practicing backbends, but this by itself isn't enough for deeper backbends.
Engage Inner Thigh
It's our hip's natural tendency to overcompensate by externally rotating our hips, causing our knees to pop out of alignment. It's important to engage the inner thighs, imagining them spiraling towards one another.
This action will help to continue to stabilize the pelvis, which protects the lower back from compressing.
If you're having a hard time keeping the knees in towards one another, a block is a great tool. You can place the block between the knees in any Belly-Backbend, Bridge, or Wheel, to help you engage the inner thighs towards one another.
In order to do this, you will ultimately need to do the following.
This is also a very common mistake in poses like Bridge and Wheel. We want to work on keeping the toes facing forward. But what often happens when we lose stability in our pelvis, our feet begin to splay out, following the direction of our knees.
This picture is a perfect example.
How to remedy this is by having your feet wide enough when setting up, that they aren't already splayed out, and then continuing to place your feet firmly and evenly into the ground.
By doing so, you'll engage your foot lock, or "pada-bandha" in yogi talk.
A tip I have to offer about this is to focus on pressing the inner arches of your feet down. It's a common tendency for us to roll the weight onto the outside edge of our feet. But by mindfully pressing the insides down, you'll combat this from happening.
And you just might be able to lift the pelvis even higher towards the ceiling, deepening your backbend safely.
It's important to note that it's okay if you don't have perfect alignment. My feet and knees still come out to the sides, even with the use of a block.
As long as you're not experiencing pain, and you are mindfully working on stabilizing the pelvis, drawing the inner thighs towards one another, and planting the feet into your mat, good alignment will come with practice.
So how are we actually protecting our spine when we make these adjustments? This takes us to our final anatomical tip of the post.
5. Protect Your Lower Back and Neck
Remember when I told you to imagine a nice, even spine when backbending? Well let's explore this further by looking at the different sections of our spine.
The top of the spine is called the cervical spine and consists of 7 vertebral segments. Then comes the thoracic spine, consisting of 12 vertebra, and the lumbar spine below it has 5.
Throughout our daily lives, our thoracic spine doesn't open up all that much. In fact, our life
styles often have us hunching over keyboards, adding a roundness to it.
It's our cervical and lumbar spine that experience more openness throughout our days, so this is why these areas overcompensate in our backbends, causing lower back and neck pain.
By becoming aware of this, we can focus on evenly distributing the bend through the length of the spine, rather than having it bunch up in the lower spine and neck.
You can see this in the difference between these two images:
Here, due to a lack of flexibility in the shoulder and thigh area, I am overcompensating through my lower back, creating this uneven curve, and exterior rotation of the hips as the knees and feet splay open.
In this image, I'm properly stabilizing my pelvis, and engaging the thighs and feet. You can see a more even curve in the spine, and more openness through the thoracic spine.
However, notice my feet are still slightly out. The difference is that in the second picture, I am cognizant of the ideal alignment, and I am actively pressing my feet down and drawing the thighs toward one another.
It's important to be aware of these different spinal divisions and to keep an even curve through the length of the spine. This will help open the chest to increase your backbend.
This may mean that you don't come up as high in your backbend, but you will be saving yourself from unnecessary compression and possible injury through incorrect practice over time.
Another common mistake in backbends is people lifting their chin up towards the sky, compressing the back of their neck in the process. Often times yoga instructors cue to lift the gaze upward, which is correct. As long as you are lengthening through the crown of the head as well.
When performing belly-backbends like Upward Facing Dog and Cobra, think about dropping the chin down and bringing the base of your skull back. This will help to open up through the chest, deepening your backbend. And then you can take your gaze upward.
One final tip I have for protecting your spine is to rest for a couple breaths in a neutral position before taking your counter-stretch. Following deep backbends, we often take forward folds, such as a Seated Forward Fold, Child's pose, or even just drawing the knees in towards the chest.
Before jerking your spine into the completely opposite direction of what it was just in, give your body a couple breaths in poses like, Staff Pose or Lying Staff Pose.
Twists are also great to do after deep backbends. A simple supine twist or easy twist will keep your spine happy and healthy.
6. Change Your Perspective
This one is the big one in my opinion. We all know that our thoughts are powerful, but I think we often-times underestimate how powerful they are.
Let's take backbends for example. If you tell yourself, "Ugh, backbends. I hate backbends. I suck at them, and I'll never be able to do them," then you're never going to want to do them.
This point ties back to the first one: if you can change your thoughts about something, then you change your perspective about that thing. And if you can change your perspective, you can literally turn a "bad" thing into a "good" one.
I know this, because this is exaggerated self talk that I have also engaged in, and am working on to improve.
Really, the only way we improve our yoga practice is by... well, practicing!
And now that we know how to engage our muscles correctly in order to practice backbends safely, I hope that you find them much more enjoyable in your practice.
One of my own "yoga goals" this year is to work on backbending. I've been dedicating at least one flow a week to heart-openers and backbends. The tips I've listed have helped decrease compression in my lower back and have helped improve my own practice.
Let me know if they have helped you as well! Feel free to share any other tips you've discovered.
PS- Check out my new 30 minute video on YouTube, focused on opening the heart!