Due to the spine’s natural curvature, backbends are actually better than forward folds, as we all have some sort of S shape in our bodies. Here’s how to incorporate these stretches into your daily routine—your back will thank you!
A sedentary lifestyle makes our hips tighter and lower back stiff, so to combat that and to prevent further damage, we do need to incorporate some gentle backbends into our daily routine and bring fresh blood and oxygen into those poor muscles that support our spine. A little extra love will help keep it flexible and healthy. Here are some gentle yoga routines to ease yourself into the backbend world.
Although this pose doesn’t seem to always get on the “backbend list,” it’s amazing for opening the front side body and squeezing the juice from the lower-back muscles, also known as quadratus lumborum (QL). As the pose isn’t symmetrical and needs to be performed on both sides, you really get to compress into one QL while opening and stretching the other.
This is a great way to see if one side needs more time to open up than the other (and it almost always does). Work with your breath and follow your inhales and exhales. Every inhale opens up the body, so try to grow taller from your sitting bones; every exhale allows the body to go deeper in the pose, so use the mind-to-muscle connection to really “think” of the muscle you’re working on.
Upward Facing Dog or Cobra
Every yoga practice starts with sun salutations, as by design, they are created to warm up the body and prepare it for the full session ahead. Upward facing dog, or cobra as a modification, is one of the poses in the sequence that strengthens the back muscles and engages them fully to take the most out of the following downward facing dog pose and stretch it out.
Key to maximizing the benefits of this pose is making sure the glutes aren’t too tight and trying to spiral the inner thighs towards each other, all while pushing the palms into the floor and expanding through the chest.
Although this pose looks and feels more advanced than others, you can modify it by placing your hands on the small of your back or even above your head—this creates a lift in your spine and has the same effect as the advanced versions but reduces the low-back compression. We’re always trying to stretch out the spine as much as we can before we dive into the backbend.
This concept might seem weird to you, but in reality, when we backbend, we are actually stretching the spine, as we’re following its natural S shape. Camel pose is amazing because, by being on our knees and shins, we really get to use our hips and isolate the movement without the risk of losing balance or falling out of the pose.
Lifting ourselves into bridge pose is an amazing way to control the backbend, and not the other way around. Backbends can be tricky, especially when our spine is warm or we find ourselves in a warm environment (such as hot yoga): We can sometimes push and pull too much because it seems our body’s pretty open for it, so going deeper than we should is an unwanted consequence.
Bridge pose prevents that from happening because we can put our hands under our lower back for protection and support. Once again, using our inhales and exhales to go deeper and open up even more with each breath cycle helps us work on the areas that feel really tight and create space in between the vertebrae.
A very neglected pose in the majority of yoga classes today (except for true Ashtanga classes), fish pose is an excellent chest opener. By using our sitting bones to firmly press into the floor while opening up at the same time, we’re creating a natural lift in the spine and working on a very effective backbend. The legs can be on the floor, or lifted and extended for a more advanced version, which activates the core and adds a bit of a challenge.
Using the elbows and crown of the head to open up the chest, we’re able to control how big of a lift we’re trying to achieve. Fish pose is one of the final poses in a yoga sequence, as it’s preparing the body for the final expression—shavasana, so using deep breaths to activate our parasympathetic nervous system is key.
As we can see from all these examples, backbends make sure we’re using our whole body to perform them correctly. Try to think about that every time you go into a pose: How can I support it with other muscles? My breath? The floor? What can I use to protect and support the spine?
You can find some good video examples and pose breakdowns on Yoga Journal if you’re trying all of these out at home for the first time. And remember, backbends are supposed to be natural to our spines—you should never feel any pain or pinching sensations when performing them. Go easy on your body and listen to its sensations.