What's in a "Backbend"?
The spine is what comes to mind when you hear “backbend”. However, anatomically, bending of the back seems a misnomer. The back does not really bend— it actually extends! In some schools of yoga, this is no longer referred to as a backbend, but as a back extension.
Bending or hinging from a specific joint is called flexion. It’s when two different parts of the body are moved closer to one another and a joint is bent in the process. Extension, its opposite, does exactly what it means. It extends or elongates the said body part to relax the used muscles after a flexion or contraction
Some of the poses that come to mind when we say “backbend”
How to get into backbends
As the pose connotes, it requires the back to, well, bend (backwards). It is strongly advised that we warm up the body first before attempting backbends.
In some schools of Yoga, backbends come very deep into the middle of the practice after about 20 minutes of vinyasa or when body has warmed up the different parts of the body needed to make the pose accessible and far from danger.
To begin, one may start with Sun Salutations A and B to get the blood to flow throughout the whole body. Follow through with some cat and cow movements for spinal mobility.
Focus attention to these areas
The back isn’t the only body part that deserves attention to be able to make these poses accessible. A good and safe backbend would require:
1) Strong quads. The quad muscles are the largest muscle of the lower body. These muscles will support the lower body in the execution of the pose. A weak quad may pull on the glutes and also damage ligaments of the knees.
2) Strong adductors. Your adductors are muscles in the insides of the legs. These muscles work to hold the lower body in shape (read: avoid splaying the knees). Work on this on your bridge pose. Try to put on a strap around the legs above the knees, or squeeze a block in between the thighs as you lift.
3) Flexible psoas muscles. These muscles run along the deep tissue from below your ribs to just about around your pelvis. Imagine this is a rubber band that connects your upper body to your lower body. You are trying to make it arch upward. What would happen if it’s tight? You’ll immediately snap back to the upright position.
A beautiful pose to practice this on is supine virasana. Sit in heroes’ pose and gently lie down. This gives your quads and psoas muscles a good stretch.
4) Strong core. Backbends don’t mean bending from the most mobile part of the back—the lumbar. Strong abdominals are required to hold an arched shape so that we don’t use the flexible lumbar to make it to the pose.
Core exercises are quite infamous because it’s just so difficult. Try doing planks (high plank or forearm plank) or if planks bother your wrists, boat pose is perfect for this—avoid rounding the back.
5.) Open shoulders and upper back. Without properly working on opening the shoulders and the upper back, the chest would not open and the strength and support from the upper body will not fall into the right places for the pose to happen.
Patience is key
Remember that any pose isn’t made available overnight. Practice a little bit everyday. Even by doing the same number of poses, as long as you are intent on working towards your goal, you will eventually achieve it. Each pose counts towards what you need it for. Breathe and visualize your goal. This is an example of how, even for me with tight shoulders can work on improving backbends in just a little as 7 days.
Lose what you don’t use
Just like any pose that’s not within daily range of movements (unlike forward folds or overhead extensions), backbends like splits, won’t stay accessible if you don’t work on them.
Our bodies are magnificent AIs that hold information that it gathers from your daily movement and habits or patterns. It will then decide what’s good for you from these set of data it receives. If you do splits everyday, then your body will think you need it and it helps you make splits accessible. Do backbends everyday and it starts to think you need it.
I believe, this is where Ashtanga shines best. The different progressive series brings you access to all the things the body needs (and thereby nourishes the mind)—flexibility, strength, patience. Each day of practice compounds the achievements day by day until you realise, you are the summary of each pose you have practised.
This is true for all the yoga poses. Practice what you need—everyday. Define what yoga is for you: a moving meditation? an exercise? a means to achieve poses? Only you are your limit.
Keep practising 🙏 Share with me your journey 💖