What to be conscious of in your backbends?
Although backbends can sometimes feel a little cumbersome and awkward, there are a few biggies that I like to focus on in my backbends. (I say ‘a few’… maybe attempt these one at a time!)
Ensure correct pelvis alignment. Quite often in our backbends we have a tendency to hyperextend through the lumbar spine (lower spine). If we can correct the alignment of our pelvis to be in a more neutral / slightly posterior position, this is going to ensure the lumbar spine is lengthened, relieving the compression in the lumbar spine. Sounds tricky to do when you think of a backbend eh? Try drawing your sit bones down towards the back of your thighs. Or perhaps think about using your hamstrings and glutes (muscles in the bum and back of the thigh) to draw the back of the pelvis down. This will align your pelvis and lengthen through the lumbar spine.
Open the chest rather than crunch the lumbar spine. Although we are bending the spine, try reframe the perception of ‘bending backwards’ to ‘opening the chest and whole front side of the body’. This will help to protect the lumbar spine and bring the bend upwards into the thoracic and cervical spine (mid to upper spine). It will also encourage engagement of the core muscles to ensure we are supporting our lumbar spine (lower spine).
Engage Bandhas and abdominals. Ensure the deepest layer of the abdominals (the transverse abdominals), Mula and Udiyana Bandha’s are engaged to protect our lumbar spine and support a neutral pelvic alignment. And your next question is: WTF is a Bandha? Put briefly, Mula Bandha is our ‘Root Lock’ where we engage the perineum and muscles of the pelvic floor, it sort of feels like you are trying to draw your sit bones together. Udiyana Bandha is our “Flying Up Lock” where we draw the lower abdominals back towards the spine.
Go slow and ensure adequate preparation of the body. If attempting a strong backbend, it's a good idea to slowly build the body up to the backbend to ensure we build muscle tone and avoid injury. There are a few areas of the body we should open, engage and stretch to prepare the body to bend in this way. Some of these include:
Opening the side of the body through lateral stretches
Stretching and also strengthening the hip flexors and quads through asana that incorporates lunges
Open the chest and front of the shoulders through asana incorporating heart openers or hand/arm binds
Adequate engagement of the core and glutes (be careful not to tire) to ensure these areas are switched on to support the lower spine and pelvic alignment
Be conscious of neck alignment. One of the most common misalignments I see as a teacher is head and neck alignment. People are busy trying to follow all the alignment cues, they simply forget about their head placement. Backbends usually involve an option to extend the cervical spine by opening through the front of the neck, however, if this causes pain then keep the neck in a natural extension of the spine. Think about trying to draw the back of the neck towards the crown of the head. This will tuck your chin ever so slightly but will lengthen the upper spine and avoid unnecessary injury. If opening through the neck feels good, then go for your life, but just remember to use your neck and chest muscles to hold your head rather than letting it hang.
Breath awareness. As with all yoga poses or asana, the breath is the best indicator of our body. As soon as the breath is held, shallows or the need to breathe through the mouth arises (rather than the nose only), this is a good indication that we have gone beyond our edge. Easy to fix - just come out of the pose slightly and re-enter with awareness and non-judgement.
When to avoid bending backwards in your yoga practice?
Heart conditions and Hypertension or high blood pressure. Due to the stimulating effects on the nervous system as well as increased intra-abdominal pressure. These elements can elevate heart rate and blood pressure.
Pregnancy. Strong backbends should be avoided due to the strong abdominal stretching and compression of the abdomen - the very space where bubs is trying to grow. Gentle backbends with the use of props to support the body can be ok, but be sure to check with a prenatal qualified yoga teacher. I will be sharing some safe prenatal backbends next week.
Insomnia, anxiety and late at night. Due to the stimulating and energising effects on the nervous system which could affect sleep.
Spinal injury. For obvious reasons! This includes sciatica, disc injuries, hyperlordosis, osteoarthritis etc.