Backbends, which refers to the effect on the spine, are one of the primary types of yoga poses. These postures typically stretch the front of the body, strengthen the back of the body and put the spine into extension. In yoga, we have numerous back-bending poses that vary in level of difficulty and primary objective.
THE BENEFITS OF BACKBENDS
- Improve flexibility. Backbends stretch muscles in the front of the body. This includes the tops of the feet, ankles, knees, quads, hip flexors, abs, chest, fronts of the shoulders and throat. Practicing backbends after a workout releases tension in these muscles.
- Strengthen the posterior chain. Backbends engage muscles in the back of the body. This includes the hamstrings, glutes, lower back (erector spinae) and upper back (rhomboids and trapezius). Certain backbends are great to practice before exercise to activate key muscle groups.
- Increase mobility. Backbends put the spine and hips into extension, and the shoulders into either flexion or extension, depending on the position of the arms. Dynamic movement in and out of backbends, for example in Cat-Cow and Sun Salutation A, improves mobility in these joints.
- Correct poor posture. Backbends reverse the typical rounded-over seated position, with arms stretched out in front of us, from cycling, working at a desk, driving and many other daily activities. Long-hold, supported backbends can be highly effective for improving posture.
- Alleviate pain. Backbends can relieve pain in the neck, shoulders, lower back, knees and in between the shoulder blades by correcting common muscular imbalances. Releasing tight hips relieves lower back pain and improving mobility in the shoulders relieves stiffness in the neck.
- Improve breathing. Backbends stretch the chest, intercostals (the muscles in between the ribs), obliques and abdominals, making space for the lungs to expand. This increases lung capacity, improves respiratory efficiency and encourages healthy, diaphragmatic breathing patterns.
- Even out the arch. The cervical spine (the back of the neck) and lumbar spine (lower back) curve inwards, even when your spine is neutral. So in backbends, we want to be careful not to over-extend in these areas and cause painful compression, instead, focusing our attention on improving mobility in the thoracic spine (back of the rib cage). A helpful cue for this is to lift your chest forward and up and draw your shoulders back.
- Open up the hips. Tight hip flexors can be a limiting factor in backbends, so in yoga we always address this before coming into deeper backbends. For example, early in a class we might practice Low Lunge or Cobra to open up the front of the body before coming into Camel or Wheel pose. This practice is called sequencing and it is one of the key aspects that sets yoga apart from conventional stretching.
- Warm up the spine. Another feature of good sequencing is to warm up the spine for deeper backbends with postures like Cat-Cow, Baby Cobra and Locust. You may also choose to practice backbends directly after your workout or later in the day, when your muscles are warm, rather than first thing in the morning, when everything is a little stiffer. In the sequence below, you’ll notice that each pose warms up the muscles that need to open in the next one.
- Finish with a twist. At the end of a series of progressively deeper backbends, we release the spine with a restorative twist, like Reclining Spinal Twist. If you’d like to follow backbends with a forward bend, like Folded Butterfly, and your lower back is sensitive, I recommend that you take a few breaths with your spine in neutral before you make the transition. Wind-Relieving pose can feel great if you’re lying on your back.
- Take it easy. Backbends can be a challenge because we spend so much time rounding forward. The thoracic spine may be particularly stiff, so please take appropriate care. Furthermore, there are some conditions (including spinal stenosis and spondylolisthesis) that can be worsened by bending the spine backwards and compressing the lumbar spine. So check with your doctor or physical therapist if you have any concerns.
A BACKBEND SEQUENCE TO IMPROVE SHOULDER MOBILITY
1. HERO POSE
Let’s begin in Hero pose to stretch the fronts of your feet and ankles and open up the shoulders. If kneeling in this way is uncomfortable, you can put a block lengthways in between your feet. Roll your shoulders up back and down a few times. And roll them forwards a few times. Then hold this triceps stretch for 3-5 breaths on each side. Draw your ribs in to make sure that you don’t over-arch your lower back.
2. PUPPY POSE
Come forward onto hands and knees for our first backbend—Puppy pose. Reach your fingertips forwards and draw your hips back to feel a nice long stretch in the spine. Check that your hips are stacked on top of your knees and relax into the pose for 5-10 breaths. Puppy opens up the shoulders and loosens up the thoracic spine.
3. BABY COBRA
Come forward onto your belly to set up for Baby Cobra pose. Bring your hands in line with your chest and hug your elbows by your sides. Inhale, lift your head and chest off the mat. Exhale, draw your shoulders back. Hold the pose for 3 breaths—looking down at the mat in front of you. Release the pose, bring your arms by your sides, turn your head to the left and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back.
4. SNAKE POSE
Bring your head back to centre and interlace your hands behind your back. Inhale, lift your head and chest in Snake pose. Exhale, draw your shoulders back. Soften the back of your neck. Hold for 3 breaths. Release the pose, bring your arms by your sides, turn your head to the right and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back.
5. DOWNWARD DOG
Bring your hands underneath your shoulders. Tuck your toes, press your hips back towards your heels and lift your hips up into Downward Dog to neutralise your spine. Walk out your feet to stretch the backs of your legs.
6. LOW LUNGE SHOULDER OPENER
Inhale, sweep your right leg up to the sky. Exhale, step your right foot in between your hands, drop your left knee and release your back foot. Inhale, come up, bring your hands to your hips. Exhale, draw your ribcage in. Inhale, sweep your arms forward and up into Crescent Lunge. Exhale, keep your ribcage drawing in. Inhale, interlace your hands behind your back. Exhale, draw your shoulders back. Hold the pose for 3 breaths. Release the pose, bring your hands to the mat and step back to Downward Dog for the other side.
Drop down onto all fours. Sweep both feet to the right. Sit back on your mat and bring your feet flat to the mat in front of you—hip-width apart. Inhale, sit up tall. Exhale, lower slowly down to the mat. Walk your feet back until your ankles are directly under your knees.
Inhale, lift your hips up into Bridge pose. Exhale, relax into the pose. Be careful not to overarch and compress your lower back. Interlace your hands behind your back and roll your shoulders underneath you. Lift your chest up and back to accentuate the backbend in your thoracic, rather than lumbar spine. Hold the pose for 3-5 breaths.
You can either practice Bridge pose a second time or come up into Wheel—our deepest backbend, if that is in your practice. You’ll find a full tutorial in the Pose Library.
Hold the pose for 2-3 breaths before lowering slowly back down to the mat. Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest and remain still for a few breaths.
9. RECLINING SPINAL TWIST
We’ll finish with Reclining Spinal Twist. If you’d like to add traction, you can wrap your legs together as you would in Eagle pose. Try to look all the way to the right and keep both shoulders flat on the mat. Hold for 5-10 breaths on each side.
10. FINAL RESTING POSE
Rest for a few minutes in Final Resting pose, before moving back into your day.
VIDEOS FOR YOGA 15 MEMBERS
If you’re a member of the site, here are 5 videos that you can include in your program, depending on your level of spine and shoulder mobility:
I’d love to hear how you find this backbend sequence and if you have any questions regarding your mobility or alignment in the poses.