Bending over Backwards – Stay Safe in Your Yoga Practice

by Rachel Krentzman, PT, E-RYT

Amy Caldwell, wheel poseBackbends are an integral part of any Yoga practice. The intention for backbends is to open the chest and rib cage in preparation for pranayama (breathwork). For some, backbends are exhilarating and freeing while for others, they can be somewhat daunting and anxiety-producing. For the first few years of my yoga practice, I would experience back pain in most back bending postures and assumed that it was a ‘normal sensation.’ The truth is, if done correctly, backbends should be challenging but comfortable. If you are not experiencing freedom in your backbends, it is a sign that you may be compressing your lumbar spine instead of increasing your range of motion.

Is it safe for my spine?

When done correctly, back bends help increase extension of the spine, a normal movement that is available to us based on the anatomical structure of the lumbar vertebrae. There are approximately 55 degrees of extension available in the lumbar spine in most humans. As we move up the spine, extension is more limited due to the shape of the thoracic vertebrae.  In optimal alignment, the lumbar spine should rest in a slight arch (lumbar lordosis), to properly carry the body weight and prevent low back issues. When we lose the normal curve due to poor posture or frequent forward bending, there is an increased risk of low back pain, disc injuries and muscle spasm.

With all this in mind, it is important to increase the extension in our spine in order to maintain back health and mobility and combat the constant effect of gravity that pulls us forward. In addition, back bends help increase lung capacity, prevent arthritis, alleviate depression, build stamina and energy as well as improve circulation, digestion and immune function. Backbends are said to help us move from the past into the present, and to help us open our hearts and let go of fear.

Backbends are safe for most individuals (contraindicated for those with spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis) as long as the body is warmed up appropriately and there is close attention paid to proper alignment and actions in each pose. The beauty of yoga is that detailed instructions can be given to help one attain ideal alignment so a greater sense of opening is experienced. When we have pain in backbends, it is because something is breaking down in our execution of the pose. Discomfort is an opportunity for us to practice more awareness and find a new, pain free way to work in the posture.

Common limitations

Individuals who have difficulty in backbends can be categorized into two main groups: those with tight muscles and ligaments and those who are naturally loose and highly flexible. In every body, there is a dance between the qualities of stability and flexibility in the musculoskeletal system. There is a myth that being more flexible is a sign of better physical health, however, the more flexible a person is, the more prone their ligaments are to injury in yoga because they lack stability. Conversely, those who are stiff are less likely to suffer an injury due to over-stretching, but these individuals need to increase their flexibility so the pelvis and spine can move freely and avoid compression during activities of daily living.

Common restrictions for tight individuals include decreased range of motion in the chest, shoulders and hips (primarily in the hip flexors and external rotators). These areas become restricted from prolonged sitting at a desk, driving, frequent forward bending and lifting and can even occur from overtraining the anterior chest musculature. Runners, cyclists and avid athletes are prone to tightness in the hip flexors and external rotators as well. These individuals need to focus on increasing flexibility in the chest and hips to prepare for backbends.

Hyper flexible people experience different difficulties in back bending postures. They often have tight hip flexors but compensate with over-extension in the low back. Core strength is usually lacking in these individuals, so they tend to ‘hinge’ at one segment in their spine over and over again instead of dividing the extension throughout the length of the spine. In this case, the hyper mobile segment becomes more mobile while the tighter segments in the spine stay tight. Years of ‘dumping’ into the low back without awareness can lead to injury as the segment bears all the work. These individuals need to focus on stability and strength in their backbends, which may mean backing off a little to maintain the integrity of the pose and length throughout the entire spine.

How to practice correctly 

Yoga One San Diego camel poseHere are some important tips to help you achieve success in your back bending poses:

  • Warm up! In order to be ready for back bends, you must practice poses that open the chest, hip flexors, quadriceps and external rotators of the hip. It is also important to practice a couple of poses that encourage strength in the arms and legs to prepare for certain backbends.
  • Keep the front body long. “Back bends should really be called front body lengtheners,” says Jo Zukovich, a well known Iyengar Yoga teacher from San Diego. While we are extending our lumbar spine, it is important to maintain length at the same time so there is more space and equal movement between each spinal segment. The common mistake that leads to pain and injury is collapsing in the spine at one segment while in the backbend.
  • Internally rotate your hips. Internal rotation in the hips is essential in all backbends to avoid compression in the spine. If we allow our hips to externally rotate (which will cause the knees to splay out), our stronger muscles, namely the gluteus maximus and external hip rotators, will contract. By internally rotating the thighs, we turn off those stronger hip muscles and activate the deeper gluteal muscles which help to create more space.
  • Avoid gripping! The tendency in backbends is to contract the buttocks strongly which creates more compression and less freedom in the spine. In addition, ‘tucking of the tailbone’ creates shortening instead of increased length in the spine.  Instead, think about lifting the lower belly to help the tailbone descend. This creates length while maintaining the integrity of the spine and core strength in back bends.
  • Don’t fight the backbend, GO FOR IT. Most people try to resist the back bend while they are doing it. It is safest to work on helping your lumbar spine move into extension at every level. Focus on moving each vertebrae into the body as if it were sinking into quicksand in order to safely increase extension in the lumbar spine. Remember that we are lengthening as we are extending to maintain a full lumbar curve free from compression.

Rachel-for-Web-200x300Rachel Krentzman PT, ERYT 500 combines 18 years of Physical Therapy experience with more than 15 years of Yoga studies. Her treatment methods involve a highly effective approach to healing the whole person. Rachel received her 2000-hour certification from the College of Purna Yoga™ with Aadil Palkhivala and has studied Yoga therapeutics. She is the founder and director of Embody Physical Therapy and Yoga in San Diego, CA. For more details and/or questions contact: 619-261-6049 or rachel@embodyphysicaltherapy.com

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