For a very long time I thought my backbends were tight because my back was tight. I don’t mean to humblebrag, but, uh, logic is one of my strong suits. Unfortunately, my logic was causing me to see only half of the picture: My hips were impeding me just as much as my computer slouch.
I had to change my perception of backbends: They not only require bending your spine, they require openness along the whole front side of your body. In other words, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are hanging you up in your backbends, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips, and abdomen.
Most of us are tight there as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This tightness makes it difficult to tilt the pelvis backward (posteriorly) — think hip bones lifting, tailbone dropping. This backward tilt of the pelvis is necessary if you want to create an even backbend. If you can’t get your pelvis into position, you’re more likely to compensate by overarching your lower back.
WHY WE LOVE KING ARTHUR’S POSE:
King Arthur’s Pose and its variations intensely targets quads and hip flexors, making it a great prep for backbends. It’s also adjustable: You can press your hips all the way back against the wall to really target the quads. Or you can lower your hips (like a Low Lunge) if you want to get more into the hip flexors and adductors.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT STRETCH?
The effectiveness of King Arthur’s Pose stems form the fact that it stretches all of your quadriceps and hip-flexors simultaneously. The technical reason for this is that your knee is flexed and your hip is extended. This means that the posture is stretching your vasti muscles (3 of your 4 quadriceps), your rectus femoris (your 4th quadriceps which is also one of your hip-flexors), and your illiopsoas. If your abdominals are particularly tight, you might also stretch them in this posture.
A friendly PSA: It can take some experimenting to get into the pose. Be patient and play around with what feels most effective. Knee pain = back off. It is not worth (ever) hurting your bod in an effort to do a pose.
1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.
Putting it Together
Setting Up The Leg Pattern Of Dropping Back
Setting a solid foundation for our dropbacks is really important, and sets the stage for the entire pose. Follow along using the pictures and accompanying cues underneath!
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with the toes pointing forward. Bend the knees so that when you look down you can’t see your toes you can only see your knees.Keeping the bum soft, bring your hips forward over your knees, so when you look down you can just see your belly and hips.Keep pushing down through the legs as though you’re going to straighten them, but don’t fully straighten them.Pressing down through your heels, the back of your legs should be engaged. Use your hands to make sure your bum is soft! Really suck the lower belly in to give your back support.
If you’re not able to go all the way back, continue to find strength in your legs and slowly play around with going back into the hanging position. Follow along with the pictures and accompanying cues.
Keep finding the leg pattern and bring your hands into a prayer position. Start to lift the elbows up away from the floor, stretching them up toward the ceiling.As the arms reach up you want to feel like your back ribs lift away from the hips. Keep finding space in the lower back.Don’t worry about going back or going deep – just focus on finding the work in this position.
Dropping All The Way Back
Reaching up and back, go as far back as feels comfortable. It is better to maintain some control over the movement so you don’t risk injuring yourself.Even if you go back just a couple feet onto the wall, or sofa, or stair that’s fine. Maybe, eventually, you choose to go all the way to the ground.
Coming back up
The problem with dropping back is that you need to find a way back up! You don’t need to come back up to standing if you don’t feel totally comfortable. If you’ve never come back up on your own before, I’d recommend doing so under the supervision of a skilled teacher. If you have come up by yourself before, you may find these tips useful! Follow along with the picutes and cues underneath.
- Start by coming on to your fingertips and finding the work your legs.
- Feel the strength of the legs pressing your hips forward and up.
- If you feel comfortable and strong you can try to gently rock back and forth, pressing off the tips of the fingers to get a bit of airtime.
- With lots of practice, eventually, you will come back up to standing! Voila!
Like I said before, dropping back is hard, and sometimes even scary. Though we all can’t be as graceful as David in our backbends, hopefully, this tutorial will bring us all a little closer. If you found this useful, let us know in the comments below!
Major muscles of the back involved in backbends
Backbending postures can be broadly categorised into two groups;
- Prone Backbends-Those in which we are lifting the spine into a backbend against gravity, performed from a prone (face down) position, eg Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and
- Supine Backbends- Those in which gravity assists the backbend, performed from a supine (face up) position, eg Urdvha Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
Prone backbends require more strength in the back extensor muscles (as we are working against the pull of gravity). Because of this, the prone backbends are the best ones to practice in order to create maximum strength in the muscles of the back that will then assist and support all of the backbends.
Prone and supine backbends are both, by definition, created by the spine moving into extension (ie a backbend), and several muscles are responsible for this action.
The Erector Spinae
The erector spinae muscles are the main muscles responsible for extending the spine. These are a group of three muscles pairs (iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis) with one of each pair on each side of the spine. They all connect from the pelvis to the neck vertebrae, and each pair also has other connections. Together these are the muscles that when lightly contracted hold the spine upright during standing and sitting. When they contract further, their combined effort brings the spine into extension by shortening the distance between the pelvis and the neck along the back of the body. The iliocostalis also joins to each individual rib, thus pulling them closer together at the back when they contract. The longissimus also connects the transverse processes (bits that stick out to the sides) of the vertebrae, and the spinalis connects to the spinous processes (bony bits that stick out at the back) of the vertebrae. When these muscles contract they pull all the spinal vertebrae closer together along the back surface of the spine.
Diagram 1 –Erector Spinae in Urdvha Dhanurasana
In Urdvha Dhanurasana Upward Bow Pose) the upper fibres of the trapezius contract to assist in lifting the upper body, by spreading the shoulder blades apart and turning them out, broadening the upper back to enable a firmer fit of the arm bones into their sockets.
In many deeper backbends, (such as Dhanurasana, Bow Pose, and Ustrasana, Camel Pose) the contraction of the lower trapezius muscles draws the shoulder blades down and in towards the spine, narrowing the back of the chest. This movement indirectly supports the extension of the spine.
Diagram 2 – Trapezius in Urdvha Dhanurasana
For many backbends to occur, there must also be extension at the hip joint; that is, the legs must move backwards relative to the front of the body. In order for this to happen, there must be adequate ‘give’ in the major hip flexors (notably the psoas that connect the lumbar spine to the inner pelvis, and that if tight we feel ‘pulling’ in lunge type movements) and adequate strength in the hip extensors (gluteus maximus and the hamstrings) to enable the pulling back of the legs. When the big muscles of gluteus maximus and the hamstrings contract, the whole back surface of the legs is shortened and the hip joints are pulled into extension, so that the legs follow the line of the spine and complete the curve, as in Urdvha Dhanurasana (supine example) and Dhanurasana (prone example).
Diagram 3 -Psoas in Ustrasana
Example; Bridge Pose Vinyasa into Upward Bow Pose with a block
Start lying on your back with knees bent, and feet less than hip width apart. Make sure that the heels are not too far forwards of the buttocks, and that the toes are not turned out. Place a foam block width ways in between the thighs about midway between your knees and hips. Squeeze the block by working the thighs inwards. This is the starting position.
Inhale as you raise the arms over the head and slowly lift the hips to knee height. Exhale as you roll back down the spine, one vertebra at a time, taking the arms down. As you move up and down, try to maintain even pressure on the block, squeezing the thighs together. Anchor the feet by pressing evenly into the big-toe side ball of the foot, little toe side ball of the foot, and centre of the heel (pada bandha).
Practice 5 rounds.
For intermediate to advanced students;
Come back into the starting position. Place two foam blocks together between the thighs, so that the feet are a little wider than hip width apart. Have the little toe sides of the feet parallel. Place the hands under the shoulders. Inhale and as you exhale push up into Urdvha Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) Keep even pressure with the thighs into the block, and anchoring the feet with pada bandha. At other times, when practicing without the block, take the feet wide enough apart so that they don’t have to turn out when you come into Urdvha Dhanurasana.
The Emotional Side of Yoga Backbends
Backbends activate the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “fight-or-flight” stress response. In the same way we might feel tense and on high-alert in a dangerous situation, we can experience the same feelings in yoga backbends. This feeling is heightened by the fact that backbends are one of the most vulnerable positions we can be in. Our hearts and front body are completely exposed. Our stress response of wanting to protect ourselves and the vulnerability of being open can feel uncomfortable at times.
The vulnerability that we experience in backbends can also lead to a release of stored emotions. We all know what it feels like to have challenging emotions build up over time, and while it can feel good to finally release them, it can also feel overwhelming and uncomfortable as we allow them to move through our bodies.
Despite these challenges, the heart-opening benefits of yoga backbends offer us a profound way to open ourselves to our emotions. Backbends provide a range of motion that we do not typically experience in our day-to-day life of being in bent-forward postures. As we practice new ways of moving in backbend poses, we can also tap into new ways of processing emotions such as:
- Stimulating the Heart chakra by exposing and opening the heart as we bend — allowing us to open more fully to our emotions, experiences, and relationships.
- Releasing stored emotions such as frustration, fear, anger, sadness, joy, and love — helping to relieve the stress of holding onto them.
- Challenging our physical and emotional limits — helping us to break through insecurity and fear.
The Physical Side of Yoga Backbends
One of the most basic physical challenges of backbends is that most of our day-to-day activities involve bending forward: making the bed, looking at phone screens, typing, washing dishes, and more. The physical practice of bending backwards is a movement that we are not accustomed to and it challenges our body in a brand new way.
The activation of the sympathetic nervous system in backbends also affects our physical body. The fight-or-flight response that can make us feel fearful and tense also comes with physical changes. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol cause our blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels to rise. These biological responses normally help us deal with dangerous situations by sending more energy, blood, and oxygen to the large muscles in case we need to run from or fight a threat. In a backbend, they may cause us to leave the pose quickly in order to calm our body down.
If we are able to safely work through these physical signals, though, we can experience the energizing and invigorating nature of backbends. The same fight-or-flight responses that feel physically stressful, also prepare the body for action. This makes backbends a good way to add a boost of energy to your day. Some other physical benefits of backbends include:
- Opening the shoulders and chest, where we hold large amounts of tension.
- Stretching the hip flexors and increasing strength and power in the legs, arms, and back muscles.
- Increasing mobility and awareness in the spine, and helping to counteract the damage of bad posture.
- Realigning the spine, and relieving back pain.
Even though yoga backbends come with challenges, the possibilities they provide for our emotional and physical growth are worth exploring. For space to safely learn the benefits of backbends, try Alo Moves‘ Full Body Backbends program by Steph Gongora and take notice of everything that comes up for you along the way. There are lessons in all of it.
Warning: Improper techniques in partner stretching may cause injury. Partner stretching may not be appropriate for very young, relatively untrained or relatively inexperienced gymnasts. Care must be taken to adequately explain, demonstrate and supervise all partner stretching done by gymnasts.
Over-Paining is Over-Training
Partner stretching may cause pain and decrease motivation in some gymnasts. It shouldn’t be used with those gymnasts. There are other methods to train flexibility.
Don’t Put Excess Stress on Joints
On all partner exercises where the partner is pushing or pulling on the arms, they should be holding the arm above the elbow to avoid excess pressure on the elbow joint.
Partner Shoulder Stretches
- Partner shoulders – sit in pike, arms straight out behind. Partner lifts upper arms and picks gymnast up.
- Partner Backbend (have one partner grab ankles of other, go up in backbend, partner pulls shoulders, lift lower back).
- Front prone, arms by side and lift. Pull on upper arms and stretch shoulders.
- Front prone, arms straight by ears and lift by pulling on upper arms to stretch shoulders.
- Hands clasped behind head, pull elbows together.
- Arms straight to side, pull together behind back.
- Hands clasped behind back, pull elbows together.
- Front prone shoulder stretch (arms by ears, lift arms above elbow).
- Lift leg while in split (left, right, straddle).
- Push on shoulders stretch (hands on medium or high beam).
- Kneeling split stretch (left, right, straddle).
- Partner shoulder stretch on stall bars or beam (gymnasts place hands side by side with head tucked under chin to the chest). Partner pushes down on the shoulders
- Back to back – partners stand back to back, One partner grabs the upper arms of the other who is holding their arms straight up by their ears and lifts them off the ground by bending forward stretching their shoulders.
Another effective but not as quick a shoulder flexibility exercise utilizes a stick (like a cut-off broom stick). Gymnasts inlocate/dislocate (move stick over the head forward and back) holding the stick in all of the possible grips (regular grip, reverse grip, elgrip, invert grip) holding the stick with the hands as close as possible. Ideally gymnast will go straight over the top, but twisting the stick from side to side still will help.
Gymnasts may hang for a bar with their hands together and head forward chin on chest to stretch shoulders.
Once shoulder flexibility has been improved, the following variety of exercises can also be done.
Lower Back Flexibility
- Pike forward, arch back.
- Torso – circles (left and right).
- Reach into backbend.
- Back limber, front limber.
- Backbend, lift legs and arms. (Right, Left.)
- Backbend, drop hips.
- Tick-tock (back kick over front kickover) (left and right leg).
- Switch leg Tick-tock (left and right leg).
- Switch leg back walkover (left and right leg).
- Switch leg front walkover (left and right leg).
- Backbend races.
- Rocking backbends.
- Set-ups (front and side).
- Twisting set-ups.
- Backbend, chest-roll down.
- Back tinsica (Right, Left).
- Front tinsica (Right, Left).
- Walking tinsica.
- Front chestroll to bridge.
- Backbend, drop hips.
- Backbend pushups on beam.
- Leg Overs – (Back prone, 1-2 legs up, lift leg(s) and drop (Left and right).
- Bridge, push shoulders over and past hands.
- Kneel, Front shoulder stretch, full extension.
- Wall front shoulder stretches.
- Shoulders at full extension.
- Shoulders at full extension, leg lifts – bang shoulders (Tuck, pike and stalder).
- Kip to backbend.
- Kip through handstand to backbend.
- Kip to handstand, front walkover out.
- Valdez to backbend.
- Shoulders at full extension.(Sit in pike, slide out straight arms as far behind as possible with hands together)
- Inlocate, dislocates.
- Russian lifts.
- 1 arm front walkovers.
- 1 arm back walkovers.
- Elbow stand with foot (feet) on floor in front
Good luck and if there is anything else we can do for you, please let us know.
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