I love backbends I always have. The feeling of opening your chest and expanding yourself. After my car accident and injuries being able to do backbends made me feel strong again. For me backbends have become a little check in point. My backbends reflect not only my physical body but more importantly my mental and emotional state.
Backbends can be powerful emotionally and mentally. When approaching backbends we need to look at the structural body but also acknowledge the mental and emotional body as well.
Mentally and Emotionally:
Backends can give us courage. They open us up to the world, opening our hearts, which can feel liberating and exhilarating but it can also make us feel very vulnerable. Often we feel we need to protect ourselves and this results in closing ourselves down.
2 years ago whilst on retreat with my teacher I went into a backbend and when I came out I had tears of joy. For a few months prior I had noticed my backbends were not as open I was feeling tight and restricted. I was going through an emotional time and recognised that I had been closing my heart down trying to protect myself. taking time out to retreat was exactly what I needed I finally was able to let that go. I felt an amazing sense of peace and for the first time felt like I was truly worthy of being loved but more importantly for the first time truly loved myself deep down. It was a very powerful experience.
Ask yourself next time your in the pose. What is holding me back? Is it mental, emotional or physical?
Backbends require spinal and hip extension as well as shoulder flexion.
The structure of our spine means that in our thoracic spine with our rib cage attachment does not support a lot of spinal extension. This is why we require open shoulders and open hips. If our shoulders are tight we’re not going to bend very much through our upper body and this can lead to the lumbar spine trying to extend more to get into the backbend.
Tightness in the psoas muscle promotes an anterior pelvic tilt which results in a shortening of the muscles in the lower back and excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine. When we then try to move into a backbend we can create more tension and compression in this area of the spine.
Our bodies are intelligent and highly adaptable. This is a good thing but sometimes our bodies adaptability can actually do more harm than good. Our bodies like to compensate and will often try to move around tightness. We need to work on opening the shoulders, gaining scapula mobility and lengthen the psoas muscle.
When our hip flexors are tight we try to move around them by turning our feet out. This can also happen when there is weakness or lack of activation of the hamstrings and adductors muscles. The tighter and more active external rotators of the hips take over the buttock muscles clench and the feet turn out creating tension and compression in the sacroiliac joint (SIJ).
Take a moment to stand up and place your thumbs into your SIJ, the little dimple area in the lower back.
Keep your feet parallel and press your hips forward as you lean backwards. Notice what happens at the SIJ. How does it feel?
Repeat this action this time with your feet turned out. Press your hips forward as you lean backwards. Again notice what happens at the SIJ? How does it feel?
In the second exercise you may have felt a tightening or compression of the SIJ. This is what a lot of us do when we go into backbends, we turn the feet out, which switches on glutes maximus and medius, hip external rotators, and creates tension in our lower back.
Does this mean we don’t want to use our buttock muscles in backbends. NO gluteus maximus main function is hip extension so anytime we take the leg behind us this muscles will activate, but we do however want to limit it’s action of external rotation. There is a big difference between a muscle clenching and being active. We want gluteus Maximus to be active and we also want to engage our hamstrings, adductors and internal rotators to help prevent the external rotation that will create compression at our SIJ.
Watch this video
We all have different joint structures which we can not change. There will come a point where there is compression of a joint we can sometimes move around that compression but more often than not that is as far as we will get in a posture. For some of us our joint structure will never allow us to touch our feet to our head in a backbend or some into full splits. What we can work on however is tension. We can work on stretching muscles to allow for more movement.
Below are some of my favourite stretches for both shoulders and hips. Practicing these stretches daily will help you work through tension and find more freedom in your backbends.
Shoulder and Thoracic mobility:
Hip and Thigh Mobility
Here’s a little 20min backbend sequence to get you started
I hope this article has helped you discover more about your body and backbends. I’d love to hear if you’ve found the stretches above helpful. Let me know what your favourite warm up is.