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Free Resources – Asana Categories: Backbends

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Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we examine backbending poses as a category, and ways to apply this knowledge in teaching.

Objective

Become proficient in the nature and effects of backbending poses, and considerations for wisely teaching and sequencing them.

Description

Describe the primary effect of backbends and a secondary effect that is experienced in active backbends. Define the anatomical term “extension” and explain what is meant by spinal extension in yoga. List categories of backbends, the actions that characterize them and an example of each. Describe the general physical and energetic effects of backbends. Define “nutation and “counternutation” and explain the proper action of the sacrum during backbending. Explain the circumstances under which students will likely benefit from contracting the glutes in backbending and when it is usually best to relax the glutes. Describe low body engagement and alignment practices to support healthy backbending. Describe sequencing considerations and provide a list of backbending poses.


Introduction

  • Backbends can be practiced from a variety of foundations, including standing, kneeling, supine and prone.
  • Backbends stretch the front of the body.
  • The secondary effect, present in active (as opposed to passive or restorative) backbends, is a strengthening of the back muscles.
  • The term “spinal extension” means reducing the spinal curves or lengthening the entire spine. It refers to the relationship of the spinal curves to each other while the phrases “forward bending” and “backbending” refer to particular movements through space.

Types of BackBends

Olga Kabel (here) organizes backbends into these categories:

Prone

Downward Arch

Upward Arch

Asymmetrical


Physical Effects

  1. Stretch front body.
  2. Strengthen back body.
  3. Reverse habitual patterns and alleviate the poor posture (“hunchback”) resulting from sitting, driving being hunched over desks, keyboards, etc.
  4. Improve posture.
  5. Improve breathing from expanding chest and rib cage.
  6. Stimulate kidneys.

Energetic Effects

  1. Awaken nervous system.
  2. Provide uplifting and stimulating effect.
  3. Build courage and stamina.
  4. Can also cause feelings of vulnerability and fear.
  5. Provide awareness and connection to an unseen area of body.
  6. May create a sense of empowerment.
  7. Said to open anahata chakra.

Form

Compensation

    • When there is tightness in the upper back, the more flexible parts of the spine (the neck and low back) may compensate.
    • Watch our for straining in the neck or overarching in the low back.
    • For more information, see Anatomy of the Spine: Form and Function and Teaching Considerations.

Nutation & Counternutation

    • In backbending, the tailbone lifts (called “nutation”) as a result of the top of the sacrum moving into the body.
    • “Tucking” the tailbone is the opposite of this action and therefore makes backbending more difficult.
    • Instead, if nutation is allowed to happen naturally, backbends feel better.
    • For much more on the topic of “tucking” or “scooping” the tailbone, see Alignment Cueing: The Spine.
    • Expert Doug Keller explains that in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), the pelvis is unmoving and to keep it stable, we may “slightly scoop the tailbone down and forward,” resulting in the sacrum being in counternutation. He explains counternutation doesn’t apply during backbending and forward bending:

When you bend backward or forward… the top of the sacrum automatically nods forward beyond its neutral position, and the tailbone shifts slightly backward. Studies show that this sacral nutation in spine-bending poses stabilizes the sacrum within the pelvic bones in a more secure and less vulnerable position than counternutation, where, particularly with backbending, you may be more at risk of pinching the tissues within the SI joints, forcing the SI joints into misalignment, or otherwise straining or jamming your low back. – Doug Keller, Yoga International, 5 Steps to Safer Backbends  link

Contract or Relax Glutes?

In the article, Glute-Free Backbends? anatomy expert Roger Cole advises that those with tight hip flexors may benefit from contracting glutes in backbending while those with open hip flexors are usually best relaxing glutes.

In Your Glutes in Backbends Part I anatomy expert Ray Long MD teaches that softening the glutes causes the hip extension to come from the hamstrings and that doing that often enough can set up a muscle imbalance and ultimately pain. He explains that engaging the glutes in backbends will tend to cause the knees to splay, however, and that squeezing a block between the knees is not a desirable approach to bring the femurs parallel.

The real counterbalance for the gluteus maximus causing the knees to splay apart is to contract the muscles that internally rotate the hips, namely, the TFL and front part of the gluteus medius. This cue works well, but it must be implemented in a sequence to function optimally. You have to engage the hip internal rotators before going up into the backbend. It’s difficult to engage them once you are up in the pose because when the hips are extending, the TFL and front part of the gluteus medius are at a biomechanical disadvantage for initiating contraction. – Ray Long MD, The Daily Bandha, Your Glutes in Backbends: Part I  link

Low Body Engagement & Alignment

Use the Legs

    • Students may avoid working the legs, causing the pressure to be put in the back.
    • “A really good backbend involves a lot of sensation… in the legs so that there can be opening and release for the spine.”

Internally Rotate the Hips

    • In backbends, internally rotating the hips relieves compression in the spine.
    • When hips are externally rotated, knees will splay out and the external hip rotators will contract.

More Considerations

    • The author here recommends that moving into backbends begin with the pelvis, while engaging the pelvic floor.

Much More!

We hope you found this excerpt from our Member site useful and inspiring.

The backbending section on the Member site also includes:

    • Sequencing Considerations
    • Inspirational Readings
    • Over 50 Sample Poses + Sequences
    • Resource List

We’ve worked hard to bring such excellent support for these other asana categories as well:

    • Categories & Families Overview (different ways and reasons for categorizing asana)
    • Standing Poses
    • Forward Bends
    • Backbends
    • Twists
    • Balancing Poses
    • Inversions
    • Core Strengthening Poses
    • Lateral & Asymmetrical Poses

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