Here’s how to use these emotionally and physically demanding poses to safely and successfully release blockages.
Energizing, stimulating and uplifting, backbends are among my favorite yoga postures, both to practice and instruct to students. They’re powerful poses that produce an array of emotional responses while offering numerous physical benefits. Additionally, backbends counteract the daily posture perils of modern life, such as hunching forward to look down at a phone or computer, working at a desk or sitting in a car or plane.
Backbends expand the chest and broaden the collarbone; this newfound space within the rib cage allows the lungs optimum functionality, as they can fully inflate on the inhalation and deflate on the exhalation. The spaciousness within the ribs also opens up the heart.
Comprised of the sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and cervical, the spine is an incredible combination of strength and flexibility. Strong bones and large muscles create structure and protect sensitive nerves; flexible ligaments and tendons allow the spine to move in different planes. Maintaining a regular backbend practice protects this balance by increasing mobility while strengthening supporting muscles around the bones.
Emotionally, backbends can trigger many responses. The poses shift energy up the spine, cleansing the nervous system through this central channel and burning through blockages. When one of these blockages gets triggered, the emotional response can be scary, making it difficult to be breathe, think clearly or remain calm. The key, in the yoga practice and in life, is staying with the difficult places and working through them.
Proper alignment and effective engagement of muscles are essential in safely and effectively performing these postures. Utilize intelligent sequencing to prepare for physically demanding, deep backbends by beginning with smaller extensions of the spine. Try the following poses.
On the inhale, move into a cow pose; dip the spine down and look forward with the gaze. On the exhale, curve the spine like a cat in the opposite fashion, gazing toward the navel. Repeat, using one breath per movement.
Lie on the belly, stretching legs back, tops of the feet down. Position hands directly under shoulders, hugging elbows close to the body. On the inhale, press down to lift head and chest off the floor, moving shoulder blades back and ribs forward in order to evenly distribute the backbend throughout the entire spine. Exhale to release to the mat.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Step one foot forward between hands, aligning knee over the heel. Lower opposite knee to floor; sliding it back until you feel a deep stretch in the groin, arching the back, while raising arms up alongside the ears with finger pointing upward. Repeat on opposite side.
Bridge Pose (Setubandha-sarvangasana)
Lie on the back, keeping knees bent and feet planted on the floor, close to sitting bones, while palms rest next to hips. Press evenly into hands and feet to lift the pelvis upward on the inhale; on the exhale, gently release the pelvis down. Continue, again using each breath to propel a movement.
Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Begin in the same position as the bridge pose, except here hands will be resting directly next to ears with fingers pointing away from the shoulders. Inhale deeply, on the exhale, press into feet and hands as you lift the pelvis, shoulders and head up off the ground. Narrow the hips and rotate the thighs inward to increase stability and strength.
Begin on the stomach, arms alongside the torso, big toes pointing in toward each other and legs fairly close together, take a big inhale. Exhale, lifting head, torso, arms and legs away from the floor. Use each inhalation to lift and lengthen, the exhale can expel stagnant energy and release tension.
Kneel with legs hip-width apart, placing hands on the lumbar to support the lower back. Inhale, reaching chest and face up toward the sky; exhale, move pelvis forward. Continue to lift upward on the inhale, push pelvis forward on the exhale. Eventually, if spine permits, reach hands to heels.