Backbends; they may seem exclusive to contortionists, but not only can you practice them, you should be practicing them as they’re extremely beneficial! If you’ve read my Welcome page, then you may know I have back problems; six slipped discs to be exact! Because of this, backbends are definitely my weakness in yoga class but instead of avoiding them, I try to practice as much as possible because every backbend brings tons of benefits!
There are three types of backbends; traction, contraction and leverage. Traction backbends are when you use gravity to pull you into the bend, your front body remaining active. Ustrasana (camel pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) are great examples of traction backbends. Contraction backbends are the opposite. Usually, contraction backbends occur while you are laying on your stomach, your back body activates pulling you off the ground. Salabhasana (locust pose) is a contraction backbends. Finally we have leverage backbends. Leverage backbends are named so because you use the strength from your limbs to help further pull you into the bend, such as danurasana (bow pose) and bhujangasana (cobra pose).
Now that you know about the different types of backbends, you’ll want to know why you should be practicing them! It’s a fact of life that we spend a lot of time hunching and turning inwards. We’re sitting at our desks looking at screens, craning our neck down to play iPhone games on our daily commutes, curling inwards to avoid the cold winter, most of the day is spent hunched forward! It may seem natural for the spine to move into forward bends, but a daily backbend reverses the effects of this hunching, opening us up and making us available to the world around us. All that hunching means that most of us are walking around with some sort of pain, regularly practicing backbends can alleviate that back pain by bringing a rush of new blood and flexibility to the affected areas. Backbends aren’t only beneficial physically but mentally as well. BKS Iyengar believed back-bending to be a remedy for depression and would recommend them not only as cure for sadness, but also would suggest them to open up the front body and heart. Stretching the heart (as we naturally do in a backbend) releases all kinds of tension and emotion and even releases a flood of natural painkillers into the bloodstream! Backbends not only help to improve posture and ease pain but they build lots of strength in the back body, stretch the hip flexors and chest, build flexibility in the spine, ease symptoms of insomnia to let you sleep and help with mood disorders such as anxiety and stress!
When we bend backwards, we naturally broaden across the chest and open up the heart chakra. The heart chakra (or anahata) is the fourth chakra, located in the middle of the chest. When the heart chakra is blocked you can feel shy, unworthy of love and alone; pretty unpleasant feelings! Opening up the heart chakra opens you up to the idea and possibility of love! Clearly backbends open us up to a flood of emotions. It is not uncommon to find a wild release of anger, frustration, sadness when working within a backbend practice. This is natural and you don’t want those feelings bottled up inside anyhow!
Backbends are great to practice because spinal health is such an important thing! Though backbends are an excellent and important addition to your practice, it is always important to work within a pain-free range (especially if you have back problems!) Pushing or pulling or forcing yourself into poses that you aren’t ready for is a recipe for disaster. Be safe! Make sure you are ready to backbend before jumping into them! And speaking from experience, make sure your mat is nice and sticky! (I attempted urdhva dhanurasana while breaking in my new Manduka Pro mat, it was too slippery and I fell on my head!) Always begin a back bending practice after your body is nice and warm! Practice some cat/cows, twists and gentle back bends before trying more advanced poses. Remember also to have fun!
(Note: If you are new to the practice or new to backbends, work with a yoga teacher and check with your doctor. Though I’m starting my teacher training in May [!!] I’m not a professional [yet]. Be safe! Listen to your body! Have fun!)