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Backbending poses are postures in which the spine is arched back, opening into the chest and across the abdomen. Because this is not a movement that most adults make in their day-to-day lives, backbends can feel especially unfamiliar and difficult – both physically and mentally. Facing these obstacles provides a yogi with great challenges and great rewards.
On a physical level, backbending postures have a lot to offer; the muscles of the back are made stronger and less rigid, the chest and lungs are stretched, legs and shoulders are strengthened, hips and internal organs are stretched and toned. All of these are benefits that can help us to live in our bodies with increasing comfort and with fewer aches and pains. This is a major goal of the asana (posture) practice. The more comfortable that we are in our bodies, the less time we spend worrying about physical distractions and disease. Instead, we are able to turn our minds toward more profound topics that are meaninful to us.
Backbends are exciting and often look very glamorous… so it is especially important to listen to your body and not your ego when practicing them! It is best to practice backbends when the body (& especially the spine) have been warmed up. It is often helpful to prepare for backbending by working with postures that open the shoulders, quadriceps, and hips. Starting with a few gentle backbends and working toward deeper poses is the safest approach. Afterwards, neutralize the spine with either downward dog or dandasana. Gentle twists and navasana (boat pose) are also good follow-ups.
As a yoga practitioner’s body becomes increasingly comfortable and confident with backbends, the benefits move beyond the realm of the physical. Backward bending requires both strength and flexibility. As these qualities are developing in one’s body, one’s overall sense of self also becomes more confident and more open. A yogi seeks to possess both the security of self-knowledge and the flexibility of receptivity.
The fronts of our bodies are used to present ourselves to the world. We greet people by facing them, looking into their eyes, shaking hands with them, and maybe offering a kiss on the cheek. We pick up produce at the market and examine it with our eyes and noses. We walk forward into new rooms and down new streets. So, the front body represents one’s external self and one’s future: the realm of the unknown and of undeveloped potential.
Backbends require a leap of faith into this realm – which is both terrifying and exhilarating. Initially, you may experience physical or mental reluctance to enter into backbends. However, the joy of overcoming this resistance reminds us of our ability to overcome all our fears and seek out the rewards of new opportunities. Backbends can open our hearts and unleash us into a way of being that is joyful and fearless. And that is certainly worth the effort!
This experience, even if very brief, can be quite exciting and energizing. Some people may even get so much energy from doing backbends that they experience insomnia after their practice. Other times people can experience a notable lifting of their spirits and overall outlook on their day. By giving ourselves a safe opportunity to face our fears of failure and impossibility, we prepare ourselves for other difficult situations in life. Gradually, a yogi learns to keep their breath steady, to give all that they have to offer, to work with persistence and patience, and to visualize a positive outcome. These are skills that we can use in all parts of our lives, well beyond the borders of our yoga mats. Happy backbending!
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