When it comes to a yoga practice, backbends are usually some of the most invigorating and energizing postures; however, with that, there is the potential for them to feel very intense, and for some practitioners, they may not feel good or may be contraindicated if experiencing certain conditions. Here, I will mention some of the benefits of backbends, as well as break down some of the most common backbending poses, as well as various modifications and variations for a gentler and safer backbending practice. Read on to learn more…
Benefits of Backbends
- Open up shoulders and chest – both areas where many people hold tension
- Stretch hip flexors
- Build strength in the muscles of the legs, arms, and back
- Improve posture
- May work to alleviate neck and back pain
Common Backbending Postures – How To & Contraindications
1. English: Sphinx Pose / Sanskrit: Salamba Bhujangasana
Sphinx pose is a great backbending posture, especially when you want to get all the benefits, but do a more passive backbend. This pose provides a lot of compression for the lumbar spine, but does not require the practitioner to lift the body off the mat, as is the case with many backbends, especially the popular bridge and wheel poses; with all that being said, it is also a backbend suitable for beginners.
How To: Come down to your belly on your mat. Bring your feet as wide as the edges of your mat, with the tops of the feet resting on the mat. Bring your arms straight out in front of you, palms face down on the mat, with the elbows lined up directly under shoulders. Gently bend backward, keeping the gaze either straight ahead or slightly downward. Hold for 5-10 breaths, then gently release the upper body back down to the mat, bringing the gaze to one side or the other, with the ear and cheek resting on the mat. If you wish to do a second round, consider “windshield wiper-ing” the knees with knees bent for 5-10 breaths, then release legs back down to the mat, and come into the posture again, repeating for another 5-10 breaths.
Contraindications: Back injury, headache.
2. English: Locust Pose (B) / Sanskrit: Salabhasana B
This is another posture performed starting out on the belly and it has multiple variations, including A, B, & C variations. Here, I will cover both the B & C variations. The Locust postures are more active than Sphinx Pose, so it may be beneficial to start out practicing Sphinx Pose and gradually work your way toward Locust.
How To: Come down to your belly on your mat with your legs together and feet touching, with the tops of the feet flat on the mat. Internally rotate your thighs, shooting energy out through the toes. Palms should be facing downward on the mat next to the top of your ribcage, with little to no weight in the hands. Elbows are in close to the body, with one line from the shoulders back to the elbows (pictured above). Use the strength of your spine to lift your shoulders up slightly (this move does not need to be large). Keep your gaze down to protect your neck. Hold for 5-10 breaths, then slowly release down, bringing your gaze to one direction or the other with the ear and cheek resting on the mat. You may “windshield wiper” your legs for several breaths with knees bent, or just taking several breaths in the resting position, then repeat the pose for another 5-10 breaths if desired.
Contraindications: Back injury, sciatica, prolapsed uterus.
3. English: Locust Pose (C) / Sanskrit: Salabhasana C
This variation of Locust Pose is more active than the B variation, and it adds a bit more intensity and depth to the backbend. Practice with care. I suggest starting with the B variation if you are beginner, and eventually working your way to this variation of the posture.
How To: Again, you will begin on your belly, remaining there if you are already there or bringing yourself down into this position. To begin, bring your legs and feet together, once again internally rotating your thighs. Bring your arms above your back, interlacing your fingers and hands together, resting on your back first. Begin to activiate your legs, lifting the knee caps and lower part of the thighs off the mat; then, all at once, on an inhale, lift up your legs (maintaining internal rotation of the thighs), while at the same time lifting up your arms and hands off your back and also your head, with the gaze remaining downward to protect your neck. Hold here for 5-10 breaths, then releasing everything slowly back down to the mat, bringing the gaze to one side or the other. Rest on your mat for 5-10 breaths before repeating the posture or going on to your next posture.
Contraindications: Same as above – Back injury, sciatica, prolapsed uterus.
4. English: Bridge Pose / Sanskrit: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Bridge Pose is one of my favorite backbending postures, with an amazing modification using a block to practice this asana in a more supported way (see photo above for both versions), which is especially helpful if you are new to yoga, don’t normally incorporate backbends into your practice, or are recently healed from a back injury. The full expression of Bridge definitely brings a lot of depth and intensity, and I find it to be incredibly energizing (due to this, it may be one you want to avoid later in the evening, especially if bedtime is less than three hours away).
How To: Come to lie down your back on your mat, bringing your arms down by your sides, with the palms facing down on the mat. Bend your knees toward the ceiling, lining up your heels with your sit bones, and bringing your feet in as close as you comfortably can to your buttocks. Take a breath in, and on the exhale, begin to tilt your tailbone toward your heels, then on the next inhale, lift from your hips, bringing your body up off of the mat, and tuck your chin in close to your chest. Energetically, keep your knees moving together, not allowing them to splay apart. You may keep your arms resting down by your sides for the duration of the posture, or if you would like to accentuate this pose, you may interlace your fingers and hands together underneath your back and roll your shoulders under the body (pictured above), then press your hands and arms into the mat. Once you are in the final expression, hold for 5-10 breaths. To come out of the posture, on an exhale bring your hands apart and arms out from under the body (if you did not keep the arms down by your sides), then on an inhale, bring your arms up over head and simultaneously lift your heels up off the mat. Then on the exhale, slowly roll down the spine back to mat, bringing your arms with you as you go. Once your sacrum touches the mat, your heels may release back to the mat. Rest here for 5-10 breaths before repeating the posture or moving on to the next posture.
Modification – Supported Bridge
As mentioned (and pictured) above, supported bridge is a great option if you have never practiced Bridge Pose before or you are new to backbending postures or have recently recovered from back injury. This provides a lot of the benefits of backbending, but in a gentler, more supportive way. This is also a good option later in the evening, as it is not quite as energizing as the full expression of Bridge and shouldn’t interfere with sleep.
How To: This modification will require a yoga block, so have one nearby before beginning. Lie down on your back on your mat, bringing your arms down along your sides, with he palms facing down. Bend your knees toward the ceiling, lining your heels up with your sit bones, and bringing your feet in as close as you comfortably can to your buttocks. Grab your block, and gently lift up from your hips, just enough to move the block under your body, placing it directly under your sacrum. Once the block is in place, return your arms back down to the mat, along your sides. Hold this pose for 5-10 breaths, then gently remove the block from under your sacrum and come back down to the mat. Rest here for 5-10 breaths before repeating the posture or moving on the the next one.
In either form of Bridge Pose, avoid turning your neck to either side once in the posture.
Contraindications: Neck injury, back injury, migraine, pregnancy.
5. English: Wheel Pose / Urdhva Dhanurasana
Wheel Pose is incredibly invigorating, and unlike the other backbends detailed here, this posture requires considerable arm strength in order to push yourself up into its full expression. I recommend not practicing this pose until you have established a regular backbending practice; even once you begin incorporating this asana into your practice, it may take time before you are able to get into its full expression. Be patient with yourself and listen to your body.
How To: Begin by lying down on your back on your mat, and just as in Bridge, bring your feet down onto the mat with your knees bent toward the ceiling, heels in line with sit bones, bringing your feet in as close as you comfortably can toward the buttocks. Bend at your elbows, bringing your hands behind your head, palms face down on the mat, with fingers pointed toward your feet. Be mindful to keep your elbows in line with your shoulders, which may require an adjustment of your hands to find the appropriate alignment. On an inhale, gently push yourself up, using. Your arms, onto the crown of your head. If you are just beginning to incorporate this posture into your practice, this may be as far as you get. Once here, use your arms to push yourself up even more, bringing your head up off the mat as well. Keep your feet down in contact with the mat. Over time, with practice, you may be able to lift your heels up off the mat once in a fully expressed Wheel Pose. Be very careful when coming out of this posture, gently lowering yourself back down onto the crown of your head first, and then slowly rolling your spine back out onto the mat.
Contraindications: Neck injury, back injury, diarrhea, low or high blood pressure, headache, carpal tunnel syndrome.
So there you have it – what you need to know to incorporate some of the most common backbends into your yoga practice! Again, always listen to your body, and if you experience any pain at all in these or any backbending pose, slowly and gently back off or completely come out of the pose. Also, keep in mind that it is good practice to counter a backbending posture or series of postures with Apanasna (do this by gently hugging the knees into the chest; you may rock side to side across your mat once here to massage the lower back if that feels good). Twists are also great to practice following backbends.
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” -B.K.S. Iyengar
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