Practical Guide on Yoga Backbends For Beginners

– Combination of flexibility and strength- 

If you are new to yoga, you might be wondering what defines a pose as a backbend. Traditionally it refers to asanas that call for spinal extension or what we know as arching. Our spines are an incredible combination of flexibility and strength. Our spine is the fundamental element holding our body together, so it’s very important to keep it mobile by conditioning the muscles and ligaments surrounding our backbone. However, the effects of backbend poses are not limited to our spine – when we arch our back, we also open through our chest, broaden through the shoulders, and stretch through the front of our body. 

Due to a multitude of activities we do in our day-to day life (such as working at a desk, driving, looking at our phone, cycling, cooking etc.) many of us habitually round our backs and shoulders forward. Unfortunately, this can lead to harboring a lot of tension in our upper body, which in turn results in poor posture, as well as discomfort or pain in our back and neck. By incorporating some gentle backbends into your yoga practice you could prevent or even reverse the unpleasant symptoms.

Yoga backbends can have a powerful effect on our body and our mind.

Read on to discover the amazing benefits of backbend practice, a step-by-step guide to beginner backbends and expert advice on keeping your backbend practice safe and pain-free.

# Physical benefits

  • Backbends build strength and power in the back muscles, as well as legs, arms and glutes. Depending on the pose, some body parts may be affected more than others, but the simple fact remains – spinal extension affects many areas of our body.
  • Backbends are not solely focused on the spine, they are also front body stretches. Practicing backbends helps to lengthen through quadriceps, hip flexors and psoas, not to mention the front of our chest and our shoulders. Many of us hold tension in the front of the body, as these are the areas most affected by the sedentary lifestyle.
  • Regular backbend practice helps to improve mobility of the spine and shoulders, which in turn contributes to better posture. Getting into a habit of lengthening the spine and drawing back the shoulders is likely to translate into a better seated or standing posture long term, without you even realising it!
  • Due to the nature and direction of movement in backbends, they can help to alleviate certain kinds of back and neck pain, as well as providing relief at the end of a long day.
  • Opening the space around the heart is beneficial as it encourages a better blood flow and improves healthy circulation all around our body.

# Emotional benefits

  • As backbends open the chest and upper body, they stimulate the Heart Chakra (Anahata). Anahata is sometimes referred to as space where the physical and spiritual aspects of our world come together. This chakra is like a bridge connecting the external world and our inner sense of intuition and spirituality. Stimulating Anahata can be a powerful way to allow you to be more open and honest in your feelings and experiences.
  • In a dangerous situation, even if danger is only perceived as such, our body’s natural response is to curl up, protecting our most vulnerable parts – our heart, our lungs and our belly. By their very nature, backbends require us to open up to the world. And sure, that will make us more vulnerable emotionally, but the action of exposing our heart can also be very empowering and help you build more courage and confidence.
  • Backbends have also been credited with releasing built-up emotions. Sometimes during a backbend practice, we might become overwhelmed with frustration, anger, fear, despair or sadness, but only because the pent up emotions are working through your body before the release actually happens. It’s not uncommon to feel strong positive emotions either, as opening your heart can fill you with a real sense of love and compassion during or after the practice.

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# How to practice safely

  • Before getting your back into an extended position, make sure to thoroughly warm-up. This rule doesn’t just apply to backbends, but we stand to lose a lot of functionality if we injure our spine. You could run through a few rounds of Sun Salutations, as they are fantastic for getting the blood flow throughout the whole body. If you’d rather do localized stretches, consider some gentle twists, shoulder shrugs and neck rotations. Since backbends double as front stretches, you could benefit from opening the front of your hips and thighs in poses such as Low Lunge or Warrior I.
  • Before you enter the full expression of the pose, it’s important to make sure you have a solid foundation. Depending on the backbend you are performing, make sure to ground firmly through your hands, feet, knees or elbows. 
  • While it may feel counter-intuitive, it is important to maintain engagement in your core for the duration of your backbend, especially when practising more advanced asanas. Hugging your belly in provides support for your back and gives you an easier exit from the pose. 
  • Naturally, the lumbar and cervical parts of our spine (lower back and neck) will arch with more ease than our thoracic spine. It’s important to spread the arch across the whole spine to avoid “hinging” and creating compression in your lower back and neck. Remember that the neck is a part of the spine, and try to lengthen it as a natural continuation of the overall arch.
  • Keep your shoulders pulled back and away from your ears. This is especially relevant in poses where you’re supported by your arms (e.g. Cobra variations, Upward Facing Dog, Camel Pose). Avoid the temptation to sink your neck in between your shoulders.
  • Keep your glutes tight, while actively rotating the inner thighs inwards. You might notice that a backbend feels easier when the feet or knees have fallen away from one another (e.g. Bridge Pose, Cobra Pose) so it’s important to check with yourself every step of the way and re-engage legs and glutes if you feel that you are laxing.
  • Whether you are practicing backbends as part of a sequence, or as a standalone asana, always try to follow them up with a pose that calls for a neutral or flexed spine. A prone backbend would be complemented by Downward Facing Dog or Child’s pose, whereas after a supine backbend you might enjoy pulling your knees to the chest or progressing to Happy Baby Pose.

# Backbends for beginners

Baby Cobra

Start by lying on your front. Place your palms directly underneath your shoulders with your fingers pointed forward. Tuck your elbows towards your ribcage. Press the tops of your feet into the floor, lift your kneecaps towards your hips and squeeze your glutes. Gently hug your belly button toward the spine. Press your hands into the ground and imagine that you are trying to slide yourself forward using the friction between your palms and the floor. On an inhale, draw your shoulder blades down the spine, pull your shoulders away from the ears and lift through your head and chest. Reach the crown of your head forward and push your chest between your arms. Stay here for 3-5 breaths before releasing yourself back onto the floor.

Crescent Lunge

Begin in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Bend your knees until you are able to reach the ground with your fingertips or palms. Step your left leg back by 3-4 feet, bring your left knee down and untuck your toes. Position your right knee directly above the right ankle. If your back knee is uncomfortable, fold the long edge of your mat to create extra cushioning. As you breathe in, bring your torso into an upright position. Lengthen your tailbone towards the floor and engage your core. Reach your arms overhead, pull the shoulder blades back and lift the centre of your chest towards the sky. Lift your chin slightly and direct your gaze into space in front of you. Take care not to collapse too deeply into the lower back. Keep your breaths calm and measured and hold the pose for up to a minute. Exit the pose back into Uttanasana and repeat on the other side.

Cow Pose

Position yourself in the tabletop position. Your wrists should be directly under the shoulders, while your knees are under the hips. Open your palms wide and press down through every part of your hand. Create a little bit of tension in your core. On an inhale, draw your chest between the arms, arch your back and fire up through the sit bones. Pull your shoulders back and away from the ears. Bring your gaze slightly ahead of you and keep your neck long. There are two ways to practice this asana – you can either hold Cow Pose for a few breaths before returning back into the tabletop position, or you can alternate it with Cat Pose (rounding the spine) as you breathe in and out.