Backbends are an essential category of yoga poses that open up the chest and heart region, the seat of the subtle Anahata Chakra (heart center). The back embodies a combination of strength and flexibility which allows us to provide a structure to our muscles, while also protecting the spinal nerves. Connective tissue in the spine, consisting of ligaments, tendons and fascia determine flexibility. Regular practice of backbends improves mobility while also strengthening the muscles.
Importance of Backbends
Backbends provide a variety of benefits that make them an important part of a yoga practice.
Physical benefits of backbends
Backbends are beneficial in improving posture effectively. Backbending postures counter the effects of continuously bending forward over a phone or laptop, alleviating back and neck pain. Spinal flexibility and mobility improves greatly. Many backbending asanas stretch the quadriceps and hip flexors too, as well as open up the shoulders and chest areas where we tend to hold a lot of tension and tightness. Muscles get stronger while connective tissue gets nourished and stretched. The abdominal muscles also get stretched and strengthened. These asanas also build strength in the hands and legs. Blood circulation and oxygen supply to the back and hip region improves. Backbends help correct misalignments and bring the body back into balance. Invigorating backbends release fatigue, tension and pain.
Mental and emotional benefits of backbends
Backbends reduce fear, stress and anxiety, while improving mental strength, focus and concentration. Backbends are invigorating, providing a boost of energy. The Anahata Chakra sentiments of love, compassion and affection can be appreciated better, thus improving relationships. Strong backbends also help release trapped emotions such as fear, anger and sadness.
What to do Before Backbends
Before practicing backbends it is important to warm up the body completely, especially when doing intermediate or advanced backbends. Backbends are best done towards the middle or end of a practice session. So during the session ensure you have done Surya Namaskars as well as standing and seated postures to warm up and loosen the body. You can do Marjariasana (cat-cow pose) as the posture moves the spine in different directions, twists and side bends and beginner-level backbends, like the cobra pose, before attempting more challenging ones.
What to do After Backbends
After practicing backbends it is best to go into the Child’s pose for a few minutes. Avoid deep forward bends immediately after a deep backbend. Instead, a simple Child’s pose is the best. This allows balance to be maintained and the spine remains neutral.
Popular beginner-level backbends which are immensely beneficial include the Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose), Bhujangasana (cobra pose) and Uttana Shishosana (puppy pose). These are easy-to-do and create a strong foundation for more challenging asanas.
Postures such as Dhanurasana (bow pose), Ustrasana (camel pose) and Matsyasana (fish pose) are intermediate level. They encourage practitioners to stretch a little further, strengthening the spine muscles.
Precautions to Take While Doing Backbends
While doing backbends avoid compressing the back of the neck. This tends to happen in the Cobra pose where there is tendency to tilt the head back. The bend should come from pushing the chest forward and upwards, not the neck backwards.
Avoid crunching the lower back (in bow pose or camel pose) or allowing the knees to wall outwards (wheel pose or bridge pose). Instead, keep the core and thighs activated and engaged and stay aware of that region. You can try placing a block between the thighs to keep them from falling outwards.
Always practice deep backbends under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you are recovering from an injury or have back pain, avoid backbends or get your doctor’s approval before practicing. In cases where one has hypertension, lower back pain, osteoporosis, spondylolisthesis, back or neck injury, intermediate and advanced backbending should be avoided. Pregnant women should also avoid backbends.
Backbends are a strong and impactful way to build strength, flexibility and mobility. Start slow and gradually work your way towards challenging asanas. The spine is one of the most important parts of the body and it is absolutely critical to practice yoga in a LIVE yoga class under the guidance of a certified yoga teacher to avoid injuries. A teacher will also provide the right breathing cues and instructions on how long to hold the posture based on your strength and flexibility. Always practice with awareness and caution, and never skip warm-ups, counter poses or even cool-downs (relaxing in Savasana for a few minutes or doing a few rounds of slow, deep breathing or Alternate Nostril Breathing).