When I was young, I remember doing backbends all over the place. I did not think twice about my alignment, where my feet were placed, or if I was dumping into my lower back. Those were the days!
Since I am not 10 anymore, I have dealt with loss of flexibility and lower back pain. Today, I make it a point to do backbends with anatomical integrity and attention to detail.
The front of your body is constantly being shortened from sitting, driving, hunching over a desk, and other day-to-day activities. Many people spend the majority of their time bending forward, and this pattern doesn’t serve us.
During this forward shrinking process, the back muscles get long and lose strength, while the shoulders and chest muscles tighten and round.
Backbends lengthen the entire front body (skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc), strengthen the back body, and give the spine greater mobility to create more balance.
By incorporating Urdhva Dhanurasana into your everyday yoga practice, you can provide relief to your lower back pain.
Preparing for backbends doesn’t require a lengthy practice. These few poses listed below will help to ensure that your spine, shoulders, and mind are ready.
I suggest starting any sequence with Sun Salutations, especially the classical hatha yoga variation of Surya Namaskar. This series incorporates a lot of small backbends that help to relax the nervous system and create ease for deeper poses such as the Full Wheel pose.
Cat / Cow: Spinal flexion is key to easing into deeper backbends. Alternate between arching in Cat pose and flexing in Cow pose to make sure the spine finds range of motion. Think of this pose as adding a little oil to your spine from neck to tailbone.
High Lunge: High Lunge helps to open the front of the hips and thighs. The grounding energy and stability of the legs allows for more freedom in the upper body. Enjoy variations of this pose with arms extended overhead, or arms open low, facing the ground to stretch the chest and shoulders.
Twisted Thigh Stretch: Begin in Low Lunge with the back leg extended as far back as it’s comfortable. Bend the back knee and reach for your foot with the opposite hand. Open up the chest so the heart starts facing the sky and the trunk rotates. Sink deeper into the pose with each breath for greater length in the quad and hip flexors.
Half Frog: Start by lying on your stomach in Sphinx pose with forearms on the floor, propping your chest up. Bend the leg and reach back for the top of the foot. Keeping the knee in line with the hip, press the foot down toward the outside edge of your hip, creating a slight resistance from your foot to your hand.
Activate the glutes and press your pelvis into the floor for more control and stability on the lower back, as well as a deeper stretch into the hip flexor and quad. Practice this on both sides fir anywhere between five to 10 breaths.
Bow pose: Begin by lying flat on your stomach. Lengthen each leg as far back as possible to create space in the lower half of your body and ease any compression on the lumbar spine.
Bend the knees and hold your ankles, either on the outside of the leg or the inside. Maintain awareness of the midline; opening the legs more creates a greater strain on the lower back. Press your knees and toes toward each other, while pushing the legs back. Notice the shoulders and front body opening as you breathe into the pose.
For less intensity, keep the knees on the ground to anchor your lower back. But for greater extension, lift the knees and legs high to the sky with a kicking back motion.
How to get into Full Wheel
- 1) Start by lying on your back with your knees bent. Align your ankles under your knees and draw your heels close to the pelvis. Your feet should be pointing forward not outward.
- 2) Place your hands next to your ears. Bring your focus to the elbows and align them over the wrists. This straight line from elbow, to hand, to floor, will provide more support and help to open the shoulders.
- 3) Press into the earth through the hands and feet. Place the crown of your head onto the floor while maintaining the push-down motion of the arms and legs. Pay attention to the elbows, as they tend to splay outward which closes the shoulders.
- 4) The final push to go all the way up into Urdhva Dhanurasana is balanced between the legs and arms. Move the chest away from the legs and hips up toward the ceiling. Keep drawing the elbows into the midline, allowing the shoulders to soften away from the ears.
Pay attention to the shoulder blades; you want them sliding down the back toward the hips and slightly inward. Press your feet into the earth and rotate your upper thighs inward. Eventually you want the shoulders to stack over the wrists with long straight arms.
- 5) Keep the head heavy and lengthen the tailbone away from your head. Be mindful of the lower back in this pose. Make sure you find length throughout the whole spine, really opening through the chest and breathing fully for more space and ease. Hold the pose for five to 10 breaths.
- Stretches the front body
- Opens the lungs and chest
- Increases breath capacity and is beneficial for respiratory issues like asthma
- Strengthens arms, wrists, and legs
- Healthy for the spine and can relieve back pain
Wheel pose is an advanced backbend. Perform this pose with caution and consult with your yoga teacher if you have any of the following.
- Back injuries
- High or low blood pressure
- Wrist injuries
- Carpal tunnel syndrome