Backbending, or Spinal Extension, is one of multiple healthy spinal movements (Spinal Flexion, Lateral Flexion, and Rotation being the others). Joseph Pilates once said, “You are only as young as your spine is flexible,” and I find this to be true. Backbending can help your spine feel young by improving its strength and mobility.
There are 2 poses in the yoga practice that are often mixed up, or blended, and I’d like to talk about their individual benefits, and how to do them properly to gain spinal mobility without damaging the lower back. These two poses are Cobra (Bhujangasana) and Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).
General Benefits of Backbending
Backbending, as a general rule, helps us feel stronger and more relaxed as we age. Gravity, sitting and standing with poor posture, and working at a computer for long periods of time causes our back to round. Over time, this creates strain and can weaken the back muscles to the point where you have the posture of the stereotypical “old person” who walks hunched over. A previous post, “Mom was Right, You Should Stand Up Straight!” goes into more detail about the importance of posture and why it matters. Backbending strengthens the spinal muscles and relieves them of the strain caused by slouching. Strengthening these muscles allows us to sit and stand more vertically so that we can move with ease.
Both Cobra and Upward Dog create back strength, but what you do with the rest of the body varies. Neither one is “better” than the other. The position of the spine is the same in both poses, the difference is one is more fully on the floor, and the other hovers off the floor.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Cobra is the simpler of the two poses, and the better one to start with as a beginner yoga practitioner. Start by lying face down on the mat, placing your hands under your elbows, alongside your lower ribs. Point your toes and press the tops of your feet into the floor. This will engage the quads in the fronts of the thighs and your knees will hover over the floor. Lift the pelvic floor and activate your lower abdominals, aiming your tailbone toward the floor. Engage your glutes. As you inhale (without using your hands) reach the top of your head forward and lift your chest off the floor. This action engages the spinal muscles (Erector Spinae group) and is the essence of the backbend. Press the palms backward and downward into the floor to move the rib cage even further forward. You are using the arms to lengthen the distance between the rib cage and the pelvis.
It is common to want to push backward to get the chest off the floor. Please don’t! This will compress the lower back and can lead to injury (plus it feels terrible!). The chest lifts solely based on the strength and mobility of the thoracic spine (the part of the spine where the ribs are). You do not want to push into the lumbar spine (lower back). The more length you create by moving the rib cage forward, the more space the lumbar spine has. This is safer, and makes your backbend more strengthening. Also be sure you are not reaching your chin forward. This will compress the neck. Think of lengthening the top of your head forward, in line with your spine.
Upward Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
Upward Dog is essentially Cobra Pose but off the floor. The body shape is the same from the head to the feet, but there are 2 main differences: the arms are straight, and everything but the hands and feet is off the floor.
Start in Cobra, feeling your chest lengthening forward. Press your hands and feet into the floor and lift everything else off the floor. Press your thighs toward the ceiling and reach your tailbone toward the mat. This keeps the lumbar spine long and out of compression. Be sure that you are still activating the pelvic floor, lower abdominals, and glutes.
Make sure that when you straighten the arms, that you are not pressing backward and leaving your hips on the mat. The arms straighten so that the whole body comes off the floor. The legs work too by pressing the feet into the floor. If you have any foot pain, feel free to leave the knees on the floor or put extra padding under your feet. There is much more of an ankle and shin stretch in this variation than in Cobra, so listen to your body and accommodate yourself as needed. Just like Cobra you want to create length, not compression, in the spine.
Anytime you are in Spinal Extension, aka Backbending, you never want extend the lumbar spine, only the thoracic spine (each rib attaches to a vertebra in the thoracic spine). The lumbar spine already curves in that direction naturally, we don’t want to increase that curve. We use the pelvic floor, lower abdominals, and glutes to stabilize the lumbar spine, putting all of the extension where we need it: the thoracic spine. We are always trying to lengthen, never compress. By strengthening the Erector Spinae group (muscles on either side of the spine), we are improving our ability to stand upright, as well as support us when we are sitting and “computering.” You are less likely to have back pain when these muscles are strong.
Strengthening the back also stretches the front. When we slouch, we get tight in front and weak in back. These back bending poses help open our chest, improve our ability to take a deep breath by expanding the ribs, and stretch our abdominals. The balance of strength and mobility is what keeps our spine healthy.
*Please note: if you have Osteoporosis, Spinal Stenosis, or bulging/herniated discs, please see your doctor before trying any backbending poses.*
If you want to explore more poses like this, join my 4 week online course “Back to Yoga Basics,” where we dive more deeply into alignment and movement principles so that you can understand how your body moves, generally and in yoga. Correcting your alignment and understanding how to do these poses in YOUR body will help you feel stronger and more at ease as you move through your day! Learn techniques to get our of your head and back into your body in a safe, and guided way. Click here for more information or to sign up! The course starts Monday March 13th!
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