Deep, free breathing and all movements depend on a healthy spine. Yoga aims to promote the correct curvature of the spine, and this requires a play between both strength and flexibility. Here, we'll focus on building the strength of the muscles surrounding the spine through backbends.
In order to build strength, muscles have to contract with more force than they're used to in daily activities. In yoga, this means practicing or staying in poses that require the muscles to contract strongly, like backbends. Many backbends also require lifting the body against the force of gravity—another strength-building movement.
Backbends are great for the spine because they not only strengthen the back, but also help to straighten the curvature of the upper spine. An unwanted but unavoidable effect, however, is that they increase the curvature of the low back. In order to strengthen the back without overemphasizing or compressing the low back, three techniques should be practiced. First, remind students to move into backbends with deep inhalations, starting with the expansion of the chest and then moving downward into the belly. Second, have students reach out and stretch as they come into backbends, emphasizing the extension of the upper back. Lastly, have students keep the neck in line with the spine, as lifting it too high accentuates the hollowing of the low back.
Here are five yoga poses to put into practice for a strong back. Remember that a healthy spine requires a balance between strength and flexibility, so these postures should be practiced along with forward bends:
Benefits: This version of Cobra pose tones, strengthens, and massages the deep and superficial muscles of the back. Low Cobra builds strength, while Extended Cobra tends to build flexibility.
Step-by-Step: Lie on the stomach with the legs and feet together—legs apart tends to increase the curvature of the low back. Place the forehead on the floor and the hands next to the chest with fingers spread wide. Inhale, and lift the head and chest without putting any pressure on the hands. Lift the hands an inch off the floor to further challenge back strength. Hold for several breaths. Exhale to lower.
Benefits: Snake pose gives similar benefits to Cobra pose, but has a more profound strengthening effect on the back muscles. It also helps to correct rounded shoulders.
Step-by-Step: Lie on the stomach with the legs and feet together. Place the chin on the floor and interlock the fingers, resting the hands on the buttocks. As you inhale, lift the head and chest, raising the arms and reaching them toward the feet. Hold for several breaths. Exhale to lower.
Sanskrit: Virabhadrasana I
Benefits: Because the arms are raised, Warrior I acts as a mild backbend. Raised arms also have a strengthening effect on the back muscles. Here, the upper back is straightened, and the curve of the low back is slightly increased, so be mindful to tuck the tailbone under.
Step-by-Step: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain pose). Step the left foot back three to four feet, and turn the toes out 45 degrees. Inhale and reach the arms up. Exhale and bend the right knee to a 90-degree angle. Stay in Warrior I for several breaths; then repeat on the other side.
Sanskrit: Ardha Shalabhasana
Benefits: Half Locust is excellent for toning the back muscles. It's ideal for beginners and those with weak or stiff backs, as it’s milder than Full Locust. The locust poses, which lift the low back against gravity, complement the cobra poses, which lift the upper back.
Step-by-Step: Lie on the stomach and interlock the fingers underneath the pelvis. Straighten the arms and place the chin on the ground. Inhale and slowly raise one leg, making sure not to twist the pelvis. Exhale and slowly lower; then switch legs. Repeat these movements several times on each side.
Benefits: In order to hold Bridge pose, the muscles must forcefully contract. This strengthens the back; particularly the lumbar region.
Step-by-Step: Lie on the back and bend the knees, bringing the feet near the buttocks and hip-distance apart. Place the arms alongside the body with the palms facing the ground. Before coming into the backbend, exhale and tilt the tailbone toward the pubic bone to flatten the low back. Inhale and lift the hips, reaching the chest toward the spine. Stay in Bridge pose for several breaths. Exhale to lower.
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