Now, ask a child to do a backbend - and they gleefully show you all the various ways they can curl their spine! I teach a children’s yoga class at my son’s school. The elementary students backbend for fun - even when I am trying to teach them a forward bend (kids hate forward bends - but that’s another blog topic!)!
I have to admit, I am not very good at backbends. In the past, I’ve cringed, too. Finally, 6 months ago, I began to enjoy the deep stretch and lengthening of my front body. It feels really good! I’m okay that my backbends don’t look like the pictures in the books and magazines. For me, it’s a slow process of awareness and transformation.
Along the way, I’ve gained greater understanding of proper alignment, how to engage my muscles, and the concept of lengthening. I’ve learned you have to “root down to rise up.” Most important, I’ve overcome my fear -- particularly in the standing backbend pictured above.
To backbend takes concentration and effort. But exactly where do we effort and how much? Too much effort in the wrong part of the body and the backbend hurts. Trying to bend the back at the low back feels horrible! Finding the backbend in the upper back and noticing the connection between the upper back and heart in the front body -- that’s exhilarating!
So, here’s a few tips. If you’ve been in class, you’ve heard these cues before. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to see them in writing.
1. Your backbend begins with an attitude. Soften. Smile. Draw into yourself and accept where you are at this moment. Then open yourself up to something bigger beyond your existence. Know that you alone are not doing this backbend. Yes, you do have the physical support of your back muscles behind you. Even better, you have your network of family, friends, and faith as your source of strength. They’ve literally, “got your back.” Lean into this idea. Make it your “back rest.”
2. Now, set your foundation. Check to make sure your frontal hip bones, knee caps, and second toes are in alignment. If your feet are on the ground (whether you are standing, laying on your back or stomach) - lift and spread your toes. Toes activated starts the muscular energy rising in the legs. From your toes to your pelvis, draw the muscles up. Keep the contraction in the legs rising. Calves are firm. Quadriceps are firm. Keeping this rising energy towards your pelvis, now, from your pelvis down to your feet, root down. Extend the leg bones. Feel your connection back to the Earth.
3. Staying connected to the strength in your legs, stick your rear end out into space (or the floor if you are on your back). By sticking your butt out, your low back will arch (don’t worry, we’ll take care of that in step 4). Now, broaden through the inner thighs, hips, and glutes. This action helps the tailbone have room to descend. Keep this broadening action to help the spine have freedom.
4. While continuing to stay committed to your legs and staying with the broadening of your upper inner thighs/pelvis, scoop your tailbone forward. Tone your abdominal muscles. You’ll feel the low back lengthen. And your strong abdominal contraction will help keep your low back protected. Keep this.
5. With the legs still rooted and the belly strong, lengthen the spine. Try to lengthen the spine out of the pelvis. Imagine with your energy, you are creating space between each vertebra. Find your heart and draw it forward. Extend your heart forward. Then lift it up. Draw your shoulder blades onto your back, helping to lift and open the heart. Keeping the lower tips of your shoulder blades drawing towards your spine, lengthen across your collarbone. Expand as if you were in a beautiful, strapless ball gown. Feel your strength in the upper back.
Lengthen your neck and allow your head to curl back as a natural extension of your spine.
Continue to extend the spine out of the pelvis and offer this backbend to everyone you know. Lengthen. Lengthen. Lengthen. Open. Open. Open.
I’m always reminded of backbends in church when the priest says “Lift up your hearts.” And the congregation answers, “We lift them up to the Lord.”
Stay connected. Keep mentally cycling and physically activating through the 5 points as you hold the pose and breathe.
To come out of the pose, stay rooted in your legs, strong in the abs and lengthened in the spine.
A gentle and engaged twist followed by a forward bend (could be knees to chest or child’s) is a nice series of counter poses after a backbend.
Finally, smile! Be thankful for this day and this opportunity to re-connect to a backbend in a positive way. Remember, it all begins with attitude! No more cringing!
first published online at www.LongLisa.com copyright 2006 Lisa A. Long