Back bending poses are a core part of most asana practices, whether they are small and controlled like Cow pose or Cobra, or more dynamic, like Camel, Dancer or King Pigeon. Back bending poses not only look good, but they create spinal flexibility and back strength, as well as undo the effects of gravity on our body. When you imagine a stereotypical "old person" they are typically slumped forward with a rounded upper back, leaning on a cane. A stereotypical "young person" has a more vertical posture and ease of movement. The secret to a youthful appearance are poses that reverse the effects of gravity on the body, helping you stand more upright.
From the moment we learn to stand up, gravity begins pulling us forward and downward. This is only exacerbated by poor attention to posture, driving, sitting at a computer, taking notes in school, texting and holding small children. Unless you work to reverse it, gravity causes the head to fall forward which creates strain in the neck and upper back muscles, and tightens the chest muscles; the tailbone tucks forward, thereby tightening the hamstrings and weakening the hip flexors and lower back. This causes them undo strain. By letting gravity win on a daily basis you are left with physical limitations, dysfunction and eventually pain. Poor posture has also been linked to heart disease, poor lung function, poor circulation and headaches.
Back bends help us reverse the effects of gravity on the body by moving us in the other direction. By opening and stretching the front of the body, the back muscles intentionally contract making them stronger; it is weak muscles that strain since they are forced to work harder than they are capable. There are many safe and fun ways to back bend that work for every body. Here are just a few examples from simple and supported to more advanced and strengthening:
|Supported Reclining Bound Angle|
Supported Reclining Bound Angle and Supported Bridge are two great back bending poses that are gentler and use gravity to create the opening.
|For a more active back bend, Cobra is a great place to start. Create the pose using the muscles of the back, rather than the arms. This variation really encourages the squeezing of the shoulder blades and activation the muscles along the spine. Make sure to lengthen the tailbone toward the floor and press the feet into the floor so that it is an upper back backbend.|
To take it up a level, take Cobra off the floor into Upward Facing Dog. Keep the tailbone reaching for the floor, but lift the legs off the floor so that the only things pressing into the floor are the hands and feet. Press the shoulder blades down through the palms and make sure the shoulders are over the wrists. The more you use your legs, the better, and again, it is an upper back backbend.
For more experienced practitioners, Wheel and Camel can feel really good. As with all back bends, keep lengthening the tailbone forward and use the legs!
After all back bending practices it is good to counterbalance with some easy forward bends and gentle twists. Lie down on your back and pull your knees into the chest, maybe lift your head toward your knees. Then bring your head back to the floor and let your knees fall to the left as you look to the right. Stay for a few breaths then do the other side.
Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.
In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios, Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.