A common observation that I hear students express when they struggle with backbend postures is “how stiff my back is”. Difficulty entering into backbends presents itself visually as an unyielding spine that will not arch backwards and physiologically as pain in the lower back. As such, the back is often seen as both the culprit and therefore the solution.
Though the solution may lie in part with resolving issues around back conditioning and hip extension, the other culprit here lies within the anterior muscles of the body. Shortening and the tightness of muscles along the frontal body can restrict back arching. A backbend might as well be known as a front-opener and in fact modern yoga jargon has tapped into this idea as backbends are also often referred to as “heart-openers”.
Scapular Strengthening and Stabilisation
This September, my practice focus is your upper back muscles, in particular the muscles that assist with scapular stabilisation and are responsible for facilitating sound scapulohumeral rhythm. As there is a great deal of discussion out there with regards to hip stabilisation around backbending postures, I have chosen to focus more on strengthening of the upper back when looking at this group of poses.
With so much focus on what happens to the hips when entering backbends, there is a real missed opportunity in examining how backbend poses are really potent for drawing greater awareness to upper back engagement, which in turn, can assist in creating a more even extension across the spinal arch.
My interest is in drawing more awareness towards engagement of the group of muscles that surround and support the scapula blades and see yoga postures as the vehicle for tapping into this awareness. I’d much rather see a nicely aligned “beginners backbend” such as Sphinx or Upward Facing Dog where the practitioner is properly engaging para-spinal and scapular complex muscles rather than a weak Camel where weight is being dumped into the lower back due to weak hip mechanics and back muscles. The pose for me is not the be all and end all. What is important to me is that your back is getting stronger, that you’re learning how to anchor the hips, and that you are learning how to release and let go of tension in the chest, abdominals and hip flexors through sound breathing. If you can learn how to love the process and focus on those things, the pose will come naturally, eventually. And most of all you minimise your exposure to injuries as you will take this mindset with you into more advanced postures where the stakes get higher.
In saying that, I wish to address how there is far too much sensationalisation around the mythical flexibility of yoga practitioners through the images that flood social media and mainstream marketing. The extreme postures demonstrated by exceptionally flexible models marketing yoga wear and the showcasing ability of advanced practitioners on social media has come to represent a one-sided image of what yoga is and it’s value to the everyday man and woman. This is particularly true of that area of the yoga discipline known as backbending and inversions. It is not surprising that practitioners with more modest practices have psychological fears about backbends and inversions due to limited misperceptions as to what those two words mean in relation to their personal abilities. Many therefore write off integrating backbends and inversions into their practice – this is really the classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. And those who do expose themselves to potential injuries every-time they step into a studio in pursuit of advanced poses through lack of understanding of mechanics.
Backbends really span the spectrum. They begin with fundamental postures such as Ardha Uttanasana ( Half Forward Fold ) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana ( Upward Facing Dog ) within the Sun Salutation A series. You don’t have to travel far in your journey as a student in order to enjoy the benefits of backbending. You can have a perfectly sound yoga practice without ever having done a forearm scorpian pose. You can execute a forearm wheel and still be a miserable sod. And one who suffers from sciatica. An advanced practice doesn’t guarantee inner peace, happiness, quality of life or even optimal health. This is the first myth that needs debunking.
When Backbends Hurt
In terms of yoga related injuries, the two areas most prone to injuries are 1. Knees 21% and 2. Lower Back 19% (Yoga Anatomy Survey Project April’s 24, 2018). When your backbends hurt, it’s time to pay attention and try and figure out what the underlying causes might be. Yoga injuries are insidious. They happen slowly, over time unlike accidental trauma such as in a collision when playing sports. As such you want to take your time and start with strong fundamentals to understand the bigger picture mechanics in order to avoid long terms problems as you start to integrate more advanced postures into your practice. My course on Yoga Fundamentals which I run twice yearly is a unique opportunity for both practising and new to yoga practitioners to develop a strong knowledge on alignment principles, breathing awareness and muscular activation key to poses when these go beyond the postures of the Sun Salutation.
Painful backbends can manifest in different locations of the body:
- Cervical spine as in neck pain when arching back into Camel Pose
- Shoulder joint as in pain radiating from the gleno-humeral complex when externally rotating shoulders into full overhead extension in Urdhva Dhanurasana or Wheel Pose
- Lower back pain as in sacral-lumbar impingement when dropping back into Wheel Pose
A more nuanced discussion by isolating where the pain occurs depending on the backbend pose is much more helpful in identifying the causes. The spectrum of backbends is so broad that a discussion around resolving pain and what causes it becomes confusing otherwise. However what is the common root here for all these 3 examples?
Causes and Common Denominator
Though the location of the pain and the causes may be different, the common denominator for all 3 examples above is that we are dealing with parts of the anatomy which are quite mobile – the cervical spine, the lumbar and the shoulder joint. These 3 areas tend to compensate for inflexibility in other parts of the body and as such causes pain either through disc compression or overstretching or tearing of of ligaments. The gleno-humeral joint is a ball and socket joint and is one of the most mobile joints in the human body. When the upper back is weak and the muscles in the frontal torso are tight – a malady which affects the general population, the shoulder girdle becomes an area prone to injuries. In backbends such as wheel pose, the generally contracted nature of the mini pec muscles can really limit external and overhead shoulder extension which in turn presents itself as pain radiating around the shoulder joint.
The lumbar spine and the cervical spine too are the two most mobile parts of the spine. And as such shortness along the front of the body such as shortened hip flexors and/or psoas or lack of mobility in the thoracic spine ( please understand that muscle tightness and spinal immobility are two different things ) will result in additional workload in the lower back and neck when attempting backbends, which in turn will manifest itself as pain.
The underlying causes of back pain when backbending thus oftentimes have nothing to do with a stiff back. Rather shortened hip flexors and pectorals can have a limiting effect causing compression in the lumbar as well pinching in the shoulder joints. I will explain why this is in greater detail in our sessions.
Pertinent to this discussion is upper back strengthening. Other than flexibility, a strong upper back can help mobilise a more resistant thoracic spine. Strong paraspinals can create and maintain space in between intervetabral discs when entering into back extension. Muscles of the scapular complex can help bring the blades into retraction thus opening and supporting lengthening of the chest muscles. When the erector spinae muscles working in conjunction with the scapular muscles (rhomboids and trapezius) lift the spine up and laterally stretch the upper torso muscles through scapular retraction, we can improve both thoracic mobility and avoid compression of spinal discs. Flexibility always needs to be balanced with strength. And as such rather than thinking about backbends as an exercise in back flexibility, I want to shift the conversation from that to how backbends can be a pivotal tool for upper back strengthening and stabilisation. In so doing, I hope that removes the stigma of backbending as something that only fringe practitioners with freakishly flexible backs do and a daily discipline that will benefit everyone from a postural strengthening perspective.
Mondays 6am and Sundays 3pm (90 mins) Vinyasa Yoga at Next Generation, Parnell, Fridays 10:30am and Sundays 9:30am Vinyasa Yoga + Mondays 7:30pm Yin Yoga at Bodyneed, Ponsonby. New classes coming up Tuesdays 7:30pm Yin and Friday mornings Early Bird Vinyasa 6:45 (45 mins) in Newton to be announced shortly!