At least I know I’m consistent. A flick through past posts see that my December 2017 practice theme was also based on….you guessed it….backbends. In the Northern Hemisphere as you’re bundling and layering up for the colder weather, here in the South we are about to celebrate Christmas on the beach!
And when the weather is hot and humid, this is an ideal time for us to be working on the flexibility of the frontal body as circulation to the periphery improves in heat.
Backbends: the Practice of Surrender
For a slightly more technical discussion on back bending mechanics and approach visit my post of December of 2017. This gives you some introductory information on the muscles involved in back extension as well as some basic tips on how to improve flexibility of key core muscles along the anterior of the body to assist with greater ease into backbending. Rather than repeating this, I would like to emphasise a couple of additional points in this blog to help with your back extension practice.
Pelvic Tilt in Backbends
There are two groups of muscles that need to stay switched on whatever yoga pose you go into – Vinyasa, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga – whatever, period! I’m referring to your transverse abdominus (TVA) and pelvic floor muscles. These are your core stabilisation muscles whether you’re seated or standing, stationary or moving. The only time I tell my students they can relax these is when they’re lying down in Savasana!
The key problem I have noticed with most people is hip flexor tightness – either in quadriceps or higher up in the chain where you find the Psoas muscles and how tightness in these muscles affect pelvic tilt alignment when they enter into a backbend. Almost all the students who step into practice with me suffer from hip flexor tightness. It is the rare student who doesn’t.
Let me give you an example. Take camel pose for instance. Most students who suffer from standard hip flexor tightness due to daily lifestyle habits ( desk bound job, sedentary and high stress tendencies ) when moving into back extension in camel pose also start to shift the angle of their pelvic bowl and naturally tend towards an anterior pelvic tilt also . My theory is that these body profiles also most likely suffer from core weakness in the abdominals and so have a difficult time engaging these in order to keep the pelvic bowl in neutral alignment when the back enters into extension. If you suffer from a “feeling” of hamstring tightness and also from a bit of back pain, the hip flexor shortening is really what you want to focus on dealing with first. Read about how to approach this under “The Remedy” below. Ideally practitioners with chronic hip flexor tightness resulting in lumbar lordosis should really just focus on prone floor based back extension poses – eg. Sphinx, locust pose and possibly even bow pose, where the spine is fully supported by the floor. Even in a large class, options for back extension should be given to reflect the varied flexibility and body profiles that turn up in such a scenario.
Tightness in lower (quadricep/anterior thigh muscles) and upper (Psoas muscles) hip flexors will impact upon the way you backbend in a couple of ways : 1. Increased likelihood of loss of core control and engagement in most practitioners when in full back extension mode 2. Increased pinching in the lower back due to compression of intervertebral discs and tightening of hip flexors. When these two things happen, you are not in a good place at all and most likely are at risk of straining your lower back.
1, Relax, Don’t Stretch
The first fix is learning how to relax those hip flexors. Having spent some time exploring this area that often plagues yoga students and teachers, my personal view is that hip flexors, particularly the deep muscles of the Psoas do not do well with aggressive stretching, if at all. Much of the tightness and shortening in this group of muscle is stress and trauma induced and so the Psoas group of muscles will respond best to relaxation techniques that integrate deep breathing, thus helping alleviate anxiety and stress. Deep breathing combined with slow stretches work best. Consider integrating constructive rest – a technique devised by Liz Koch – into your daily or weekly breathing regiment. No stretching actually occurs in constructive rest but this simple technique accessible to all skill levels will bring profound changes to both your mind and body, and the body through the mind. Constructive rest is something I get my students to practice regularly in the Yin class I run on Tuesday evenings. Sometimes, it’s a little more accessible to do it within the context of a classroom as the environment is created and as the name implies, rest is an activity that needs to be engineered through space, mood and external factors which are sometimes hard to control when you’re doing it at home for instance, in a communal space facilitating the varied activities of family members. I often start with constructive rest when I’m running a class where I’m focusing on hips and hip flexors.
2. Pelvic Bowl Stays Neutral
The second thing that can help is learning how to stabilise the hips and keeping the pelvic bowl in neutral alignment when entering into upright back extension poses such as a standing back bend, a low lunge back bend, camel pose or little thunderbolt pose and a more advanced backbend such as a drop back from standing. Having said that if you have done my Yoga Fundamentals course, you will understand that in an ideal posture, the lumbar is in slight lordosis which means the pelvic bowl is slightly anteriorly tilted. Keeping the hips in neutral alignment requires the assistance of multiple hip and lower core stabilisation muscles including the multifidus at a deeper level as well as your glute meds on a more superficial level. Any drills that can help activate those muscle groups including and it goes without saying – your TVA and pelvic floor will go a long way in helping you learn how to anchor those hips and avoid excessive anterior pelvic tilting when the mid to upper back goes into extension. Activation and engagement of the TVA and pelvic floor will take the strain out of the lower back and keep it safe.
Surrender with Ease and Confidence
The practice of backbends is the practice of surrender. Yet the process of yielding can only happen if there is trust that the body will do what it needs to stay safe. Children often tumble easily and with no hesitation into backbends and wheels. But as adults, we collect emotional baggage, anxieties and muscles stiffen over time. Let’s face it, even if the mind and heart is willing, don’t go and throw yourself into a backbend without laying the foundation – that’s just not realistic and most likely you will hurt yourself. So when I say the practice of backbends is the practice of surrender, I don’t mean it in some romantic sense where you throw yourself backwards with reckless abandon. What I mean is that you must learn to read what your body is capable of and not given it’s present abilities. Then trust the system to help you discover it’s greatest potential and when you do find the courage to yield into unknown territory because you’ve done the work and approached it with both innate and acquired intelligence.