The Health Benefits of Yoga Backbends and How to Practice Safely
Backbends are important and useful when it comes to maintaining health, youth, and longevity of your body. No matter how you feel, you should backbend every day– if possible. The longer you wait to do it, the harder it will be. But of course, because this is yoga and we try to honor our abilities and energy, it’s never too late to start!
Backbends are beneficial for much of your body including your respiratory system, digestion, kidneys, circulation, and heart. During a backbend your heart receives a stretch, and this increases its efficiency in pumping blood. Your diaphragm will receive slight pressure and oxygen rich blood will rush to the area. In other words, this will catalyze healing. And remember, all of the health gurus believe that nothing will keep your body youthful quite like flexibility. Your back takes up a significant part of your body, and is therefore worth working on.
Emotional Health and Chakras
On a spiritual and emotional level, your back holds 3 chakras, all of which need to be cleansed for spiritual pathways to flow with balance. Many who have tightness in their backs perhaps have experienced emotional discomfort in the past, relating to emotional pain such as, heartbreak, bitterness, fear of letting go, and fear of loss. This is one reason why backbends are commonly referred to as “heart openers” (apart from them literally opening your rib cage). Consider the slumped shoulders of someone who is depressed and lonely. Their deficient heart chakra recedes into their chest and needs to be opened. In this crazy world, we all feel emotional pain at times, and caring for your heart chakra, helping it open, will assist you in keeping your spiritual and emotional self open to giving and receiving love from the world despite inevitable emotional challenges.
How to Backbend Safely
No matter where you are in your practice, a backbend of any kind will be beneficial for your health. There are many backbends to add to your practice, but let’s say the goal is to work towards a deep Urdhva Dhanurasana, or Upward Bow pose, which a beautiful pose. Eventually you may go deeper into another extension of the pose, but first focus on working towards a deep Upward Bow.
In preparation, remember that the stronger and warmer your back is, the better it will bend, and the easier it will be to open your heart. I highly suggest doing about 40 minutes of flow prior to working on Upward Bow Pose. The warmer your body, the better.
Remember to be patient, dedicated, and if anything hurts, stop and consider your form. There is a difference between positive discomfort that breaks down scar tissue and builds muscle, and bad pain that will damage your alignment and leave you unable to practice. So always be mindful of sensations.
A strong and deep Upward Bow pose requires flexibility in your lower back, front of hips, chest, and shoulder blades, as well as core, leg, and shoulder strength. A strong core will protect your spine and allow your body to lift high above your feet and hands. Strong shoulders will allow flexibility for your chest to open. Flexibility in the front of your hips will allow the front of your body to bend to accommodate your core lifting itself over your hands and feet. Remember: muscle is healthy, and protects your body from harm. Try to do this daily, repetition is your friend.
Do a flow that includes hip openers, heart openers, shoulder opening, and core work. A few examples, Warriors 1+2, Wild Thing, side plank with bind, prasarita, and lots of chaturangas will strengthen your shoulders and activate heat.
After you’ve warmed and stretched your body and feel that it is ready to work specifically on backbends, begin with a camel pose. Camel Pose is simple enough as long as you pay close attention to the sensations to avoid injury. Hold a full camel pose for 5 breaths.
For full depth and benefits, do three reps, placing the crown of your head on your mat for one to three breaths between each rep. If you feel that your body is warm enough and ready to practice Urdhva Dhanurasana, follow these steps for the best method of practice:
-Lie on your back with knees bent, feet hips width apart. Hold your heels with your hands to elongate the spine.
-Using your quads, glutes relaxed, lift your hips as high as you can.
-Place your hands above your shoulders, and lift your head onto its crown. Be sure that you are nose-breathing to send oxygen throughout your body.
-Press firmly into the mat with your feet and hands, and lift your belly as high as you can above the ground, shifting your gaze to the mat between your hands.
-Be sure you are using your quads, glutes should always be relaxed. This will help open the front of your hips.
-Push deeper into the pose by envisioning your rib cage opening wide, as you activate more shoulder strength, pushing your hands farther away from you. You may need to endure a bit of discomfort if your body is not used to this activation. Continue deeper by pressing your hips higher and using your hands to root firmly and flatly on the ground, as you press your chest over your hands. Envision using your hands and feet to lift your belly high above the ground. Walk your hands in if you have room.
-Continue your nose-breathing throughout, and hold the deepest version of your pose for 5 breaths.
-Repeat 3 times. Friends don’t let friends only do one backbend!
Immediately after a set of Urdhva Dhanurasana, always do a seated forward fold– It aligns your spine and stretches out your hamstrings. You may find your forward fold is deeper than before. And you may not hear this very often, but don’t underestimate the power of a good egg pose. Peace, quiet, slowness, and the gentle release of the back. It feels amazing.
Remember that yoga is meant to be holistic. Warriors open hips, and chaturangas strengthen shoulders and backs. If you get on your mat every day and strengthen your core and bend your back, your back bends will improve.
Photos: Anastasia Bailey