Backbends, some people love them, some people hate them. For me, they are a bit like mushrooms, I am in a love/hate relationship with them - and I am totally fine with that. Backbends can tell you a lot about yourself especially if you fall into one of these like/dislike categories. Regardless, backbends are an essential part of our yoga practice and so important for the holistic health of our body and mind. Over the next three weeks, I will be explaining some of the benefits of backbends, what to be mindful of in a backbend, when to avoid and of course some pregnancy friendly backbends.
So why do we bend backwards in yoga?
In general, backbends are an energising and stimulating pose. Great to do first thing in the morning to kick start the nervous system and awaken the body. There are so so so many benefits to backbends that it is proving challenging to choose only 5 to write about! Here are a few of the biggies (and my favourites) plus some explanation into the why behind them:
Stimulates the Sympathetic Nervous System
Although much of yoga is about relieving stress and calming body & mind, there is still a very large aspect of stimulating the body. We do this for a variety of reasons, to build strength & endurance, to stimulate energy flow within the body, to increase circulation and maintain cardiac health. Therefore it is important to stimulate our nervous system and innervate the sympathetic nervous system (also known as the “fight or flight” response) as well as our parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest & digest” or relaxation response). It is the Yang to the Yin.
In our backbends, pressure is increased at the heart centre due to compression of the chest cavity, the adrenals are squeezed and the heat in the body is increased which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. This activates and energises the body and can be therapeutic for fatigue, low energy and mild cases of depression.
Helps to increase immunity and stimulate the lymphatic system
Compression of the thymus gland (located in the centre of our chest) into the sternum (breastbone), helps to stimulate the thymus gland - a very important organ in our lymphatic system. It also aids in massage of the spleen - our largest lymphatic organ in the body. These glands are largely involved in maturation and storage of white blood cells in the body. They help to filter red blood cells and kill cells that have been infiltrated by a pathogen (bad things like bacteria, infection, virus etc), thus helping to remove infection in the body.
Backbends also usually involve a compression or opening of areas in the body that house our lymph nodes - mainly the armpits, groin and neck. This helps stimulate the lymph nodes and movement of lymphatic fluid through these nodes, helping to filter lymph fluid to remove infection and waste in the body.
Contributes to overall spinal health and correct posture
When bending backwards in yoga, if done correctly, we open through the front side of our body and start to explore the range of movement in the spine. Particularly the cervical and thoracic spine (our mid to upper spine). This is particularly important with the type of modern-day daily activities we are commonly exposed to these days. For example - working at a desk, driving, carrying children, housework etc. These repetitive movements create this type of ‘hunched forward’ posture. After a prolonged period, this shortens the muscles in the chest which in turn pulls the shoulders forward, further rounding out through the upper spine and shoulders. Backbends help to reverse the effects of this hunched posture and opens the chest to stretch and release tension or tightness through the chest muscles.
In our backbends, we also explore the spine’s natural range of movement. This helps to strengthen the muscles that surround and support the spine including the QL (quadratus lumborum) and erector spinae. This helps to correct and maintain spinal alignment which contributes to a better posture.
Moves and releases Energy (Prana)
When I talk about ‘energy’ in a yoga sense, we are talking about Prana or the force within our body that gives us vitality rather than the more physical energy we gain from nutrition, oxygen etc. You can read more about that here. So when energy starts to get stuck or blocked in a particular area, it starts to manifest in us physically, emotionally and mentally. For example, butterflies in the stomach - mental states of nerves and stress cause a block in our energy giving us this physical sensation of butterflies or knots in our belly. Anywhoo, I am starting to get off topic here… Back to backbends - a lot of our backbends help us to move and release and stuck energy throughout almost the entire body helping us to feel balanced and clear.
In particular, it opens through the chest which opens the heart, helping to become more welcoming to love, life and relationships. Also our stomach and solar plexus area which is related to self-confidence and personal power. So balance in this area helps us to feel more empowered within ourselves.
Trains the body to stay calm when under stress or confronted with fear
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we store a lot of emotions in the organs of our torso. Our backbends stimulate some of these ‘powerhouses’ of emotion storage: the hips, heart, stomach and kidneys, to name just a few.
Our backbends in particular, squeeze into the kidneys which house the emotion of fear. This allows us to confront fear, giving a feeling of letting go or becoming free. I know when I am in Ustrasana (Camel Pose), I am very reluctant to release my head backwards but the few times I do, I feel so open and free afterwards. An interesting feeling!
Also the stimulation of the nervous system coupled with the use of the Ujjayi Breath (the Yogic Breath - breathing in and out through the nose, catching at the base of the throat), helps train the body to remain calm and in control when perhaps our body is experiencing stress or large emotional releases. This can be applied to our life off the yoga mat, using similar techniques in stressful situations. This helps the body to deal and process stress or challenges in life without the physical overreaction of the nervous system (that fight or flight response where your heart starts racing, your breath shallows and your body prepares for danger).
So those are my 5 favourite benefits to backbends. Next week I'll be talking about what to be mindful of in a backbend and also when to avoid backbends. Have a good week!
yogamag.net, Prana: the Universal Life Force, http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1982/emay82/prana582.shtml
Yoga Journal, What is Ujjayi, https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/what-is-ujjayi
Yoga Journal, Face Fear in Backbends, https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/fearless-backbends
Australian Natural Health Magazine, Palmer. E, The Body of Emotion, Accessed via Moksha Yogahttps://www.mokshayoga.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/21-The-Body-of-Emotion.pdf
Moksha Academy of Yoga, Asana Lab - Backbends
Long. R, 2006, The Key Muscles of Yoga, Bandha Yoga Publications