There is a ton of excitement around bending forwards to touch your toes and stretch your hamstrings. Many times throughout the week, I hear people talk about why they don’t do yoga. One common response is, “I can’t touch my toes.” Stretching your hamstrings has incredible benefits for your mobility, hips, and back health and I recommend to practice them often. At the same time, forward bending isn’t what it’s all about. What about bending backwards?
Forward hunching is a daily habit.
Sitting at a desk, driving, typing, and writing are all habitual actions where our arms are in front of us. We lean over to tie our shoes. We garden, prepare meals, and eat by reaching in front of us. We bend to pick something up from the floor and do a number of things with our arms extending forward.
Do we ever have to backbend to turn on the stove or to put our clothes in the dresser drawers? Of course not! The only times we may find ourselves bending backwards is during a yoga class or another fitness class, and even then it may be infrequent.
That’s why backbending is usually very frightening and difficult for most people; it’s truly a foreign action in daily life and feels unnatural.
Need an energetic boost? Reach backward!
When we are tired or fatigued, we hunch. When we are sad, we round our shoulders forward and cave our chest inward. In backbends, we do the opposite (which makes these asanas so great) and the result is a feeling of vitality.
Backbends help to counter stretch and counter balance the physical and energetic effects of forward bending and hunching that we do throughout our day, so it’s important that we take some time to practice them: Upward-facing dog, Bow Pose, Bridge Pose, Locust Pose, Dancers Pose, Camel Pose, Wheel Pose, and the list goes on and on.
And if you’re like most yogis, or people, backbending can be quite challenging. It’s normal! Those who have super bendy back flexibility are rare breeds. For the rest of us who think of backbending as a sometimes awkward, sometimes painful and scary task, then it’s helpful to be reminded of the benefits, the power, the sheer wellness-inducing aspects of pressing up into wheel or reaching back for our toes.
Two of my favorite things.
In each of my Vinyasa classes, I highly encourage, and often teach, at least 3-6 different backbends every class. I love the feeling of stretching backwards in yoga asana and know the immense benefits of doing so. Two of my preferred backbends are Wheel Pose and Camel Pose. See below for why.
First, warm up!
Backbend poses are typically during the “peak” of the class where the body is the most open and ready for deeper asanas. If you are doing these at home, or adding them into your practice, make sure you take some time to prepare your body. To warm up, think about mobilizing your spine in all different directions using Cat and Cow, twists, and side bending postures. Include Sun Salutations because they warm-up the whole body and include a preparatory backbend, Upward Facing Dog.
URDHVA DHANURASANA: Wheel Pose
Important alignment considerations:
Engage your adductors, you inner thighs. Hug into your centerline so the knees point forward. To feel this, you can put a block between your upper thighs and squeeze inward.
- Blocks for your hands: Support your hands, each on a block, to help yourself experience the full backbend. Be sure to brace the blocks against a wall.
- Bridge Pose.
Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana - Shift your weight into your left foot. Exhale and draw your right knee into your chest. On your next exhale press your right heel up to the ceiling and straighten your leg.
- Strengthens your legs, shoulders and arms
- Opens up thighs and chest
- Increases healthy mobility of the spine
- Stimulates the thyroid and pituitary glands
- Energizes your body
USTRASANA: Camel Pose
Important alignment considerations:
Decompress your lower back: Draw your lower belly in and up. Engaging your abdominals will help to create space in your spine.
- Hand placement: Keep your hands behind your at your lower back, draw your tailbone downward, and press your hips forward.
- Foot placement: Give yourself 3 more inches of reach by curling your toes underneath so that your heels are now closer to your hands.
One arm: From full Ustrasana with your hands to your heels, take your right arm and reach it overhead and back to the wall behind you. Keep both sides of your chest equally balanced to the floor. Hold for 3 breaths. Place your hand back. Switch to the other side.
- Stretches the entire front of the body, the ankles, thighs and groins, abdomen and chest, and throat
- Stretches the deep hip flexors (such as the psoas)
- Strengthens back muscles
- Improves posture
- Respiratory ailments
- Mild backache
- Menstrual discomfort