Backbending Series: Pregnancy friendly backbends

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When pregnant, strong backbends are contraindicated. As the pregnancy progresses, the lordotic curve (inwards curve) of the lumbar spine becomes exaggerated due to the increased weight of bubs in the belly. If we then add a backbend to this already compressed lumbar spine, we could run the risk of spinal injury, vertebrae or disc damage. 

Additionally, it is also integral to engage the core in all of our backbends to ensure proper pelvic and lumbar spine alignment. However, when pregnant, we are trying to avoid compressing the abdominal region where the baby is growing so it would be unsafe to attempt any strong backbends.

However, there are a few lovely backbends that are safe during pregnancy and ones which I tend to modify with. I have demonstrated these below:

 
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Bitilasana (Cow Pose) 

This is a great option for any prone asana (lying on the tummy) such as Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) etc. Here we try to open through the chest by bringing the gaze upwards and opening the chest forwards between the upper arms. Usually, we would dip the spine toward the mat, however, this could cause hyperextension in the lumbar spine region so it is safest to try to maintain a flat lumbar spine and neutral pelvis here. It's also a good idea to try to relax through the rectus abdominus (our ‘six-pack’ muscles in the front of the abdomen) and try to focus on gentle engagement of the side abdominals (transverse abdominis and obliques) instead.

 
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Ustrasana (Camel Pose) Variation

Here we still get the benefit of opening through the chest and front upper body but without compromising the lumbar spine and over engaging the rectus abdominis. If you feel comfortable the head can be released backwards for the cervical spine extension opening through the neck and massaging endocrine glands located in the neck.

 
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Salambar Supta Baddha Konasana (Supported Reclined Bound Angle Pose)

Here, there is a gentle yet supported and restorative backbend with the added bonus of a hip opener. Hip openers are a great way to prepare the body and pelvis for labour and birth. This pose also opens through the chest and front of the shoulders which helps to counteract the common hunching posture we gain when working at a desk, driving, lifting kids etc. This chest opening and posture is also very important postnatally when there may be a lot of upper body endurance needed when picking up bub, breastfeeding, hunching to change nappies etc.

 
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Salambar Matsyasana (Supported Fish Pose)

This is a little stronger on the lumbar spine and could be uncomfortable late in pregnancy due to the reclined position (2 bolsters in a T-shape would be more appropriate for the 3rd trimester) but is a lovely alternative to a regular Fish Pose. Here we are safely extending the spine with that added support of the bolster. Be careful when coming out of this pose, ensuring we roll to one side and then use the arms to support the body to sit up, rather than using the abdominals to sit up immediately from lying down - a good one to remember when getting out of bed in the morning as well!

 

So if you are pregnant but still want to explore that extension in the spine and some of the benefits of backbends, give these alternatives a whirl!

Backbending Series: What to be aware of and when to avoid

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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.

Backbending Series: 5 Major Benefits to Backbends in Yoga

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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!

 

References:

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