Why backbends in December?
December is a magical month. It’s the last month of the year where we are both anticipating the impending holiday season and working to meet deadlines of sorts. It’s a happy time of the year but it can also be a stressful one.
Incorporating back extension or back – bending into your yoga practice can be a great way to manage stress levels but in a way that also encourages the opening of the heart leading into this time of reflection, reconciliation and giving.
Opening the front of the body
The “opening of the heart” is often metaphorically referenced in relation to back-bending poses. However the opening of the front of the body is essential in preparing the body for deeper back-bending poses. What I mean by the opening of the front of the body is the increasing of flexibility of key muscles around the chest, ribs, abdomen and hips that will allow you to enter into your back-bending poses with greater ease.
Some exercises to assist with flexibility of muscles in the front of the body:
The internal intercostal muscles:
These muscles runs between the ribs and help support the chest wall in the breathing process. Cat-cow breathing is a great way to help regulate your inhale-exhale breath rhythm. Bad posture and stress can all contribute to the tightening of the chest wall and cat-cow breathing is a very helpful exercise that you can do everyday to help relax the intercostal muscles. In addition you could then add Gomukhasana ( Cow Face Pose ) and Parighasana ( Gate Pose ) to help encourage greater flexibility over time in these muscles.
Muscles of the chest ( Pectoralis ) & Lattisimus Dorsi:
Reverse table top, Bridge Pose, Setu Bandhasana, Purvottanasana, Paddotanasana C and Dhanurasana have all been extremely helpful to me in the lead-up to Urdhva Dhanurasana. Ultimately Urdhva Dhanurasana is one of the most important poses that will help you release the Psoas, a key anterior muscle and hip flexor. However if Urdhva Dhanurasana is not yet accessible, concentrate on the other exercises and poses I have listed previously. Placing a block in between the shoulder blades and along various segments of the thoracic spine can also be a helpful and relaxing way to open up the chest. Sometimes I do this when I’m watching TV and it’s a wonderful way to release the chest without having to work too hard for it!
The beauty of yoga is that when you’re contracting one side of your body you’re stretching the other side and as such you are getting stronger whilst improving flexibility all at once! Any exercise that involves twisting or lateral flexion will improve both the strength and flexibility of your obliques. For a gentle seated twist, come into an easy seated cross-legged position and bring your right hand across to your left knee and twist from the middle of the spine. Make sure to inhale and elongate the spine prior to twisting. Other seated postures for the side trunk include Marichyasana C and Ardha Matsyendrasana. If your prefer to try some standing postures, you could try Trikonasana and Pavritta Parsvokonasana.
Stability and Safety
Flexibility along the anterior muscles need to find a supportive base in order for backbends to be executed safely. A supportive base is formed initially through pelvic floor and abdominal engagement ( commonly known as the bandhas in yoga speak ).
A safer backbending practice on the other hand is underpinned by sacral nutation. Sacral nutation and counter-nutation are movements that happen at the sacroiliac joints. Backbending places excessive pressure on the lumbar spine as well as the tissues surrounding the sacroiliac joints. Nutation which is the tipping forward of the sacrum in relation to the hip bones (ilium) help stabilise the pelvic bones and relieves pressure around the sacroiliac joints in backbending postures. Additionally nutation can help lengthen the spine, lift and open up the rib cage which is the energy and space we are looking for in the top half of the body in backbending postures.
The combination of muscular engagement of the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles along with sacral nutation can help create both safety and stability within your backbending practice. How does one initiate sacral nutation? The easiest way to experiment with this is to internally rotate your thigh bones when standing thus flaring out or broadening your sit bones. This helps to create a sense of space also in your sacroiliac joints. When this happens, the iliac wings move towards each other and the sacrum tilts forward since the sacrum and ilium are joined together at a 45 degree angle.
A progressive approach to back-bending
Thus when approaching your backbending practice, I’d like you to think about it progressively like this:
1. Work on increasing flexibility along the front of the body.
2. Build on core strength and learn how to activate muscular engagement of the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, in particular those that lie below the belly button. Strong and engaged abdominal muscles provide the necessary anchor and support for the spine to help keep it safe in backbending postures.
3. Explore sacral nutation through the flaring of the sit bones initially in a standing pose such as Tadasana where you can just focus on working the ilium in a forward motion through a slight internal rotation of the thigh bones. You should feel a sense of space around the sacrum and in the joints attaching to the iliac wings.
Flexibility of anterior muscles, stability through engagement of the pelvic floor and abdominals and safety through sacral nutation are principles that offer a sound framework for you to work within in developing your backbending practice. Obviously there are many other permutations as there are body types in the world and thus each practice needs to be modified to suit the practitioner. However generally speaking this is a good foundation to begin with.
An open mind leads to an open heart
I often encounter many students who are fearful of and avoid backbends as they associate certain poses that they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media and think it’s beyond them. My final word is this: there are many types of backbends and you don’t need to do Urdhva Dhanurasana or Kapotasana to enjoy the benefits of backbends. Shalabhasana, Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana and Bridge Pose are all wonderful backbends accessible to most inexperienced yoga practitioners and practising poses such as these can bring immeasurable physiological as well as mental benefits to the practitioner. There is a backbend to suit every level of flexibility or inflexibility for that matter. All it takes is an open mind to lead you to that open chest and heart.