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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Guest blog: A lesson in backbends

By | Asana | No Comments

Before going any further, I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who showed up for the backbending classes I taught during the last week of July – it was an absolute delight to be amongst you and absorb some of that unique Peacock Tree Yoga kula spirit! I’m also very grateful for your lovely feedback and am more than happy to share some of the techniques we explored in class, as requested by several students…

Snazzy videos and photos coming up – but please read the following first!!

This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to your body – and, even more importantly, to respond to what it says. I would never have got so far with my backbends if I hadn’t decided to go easy on myself, and I daresay it’ll be the same for you. It’s also important to understand the reasons why backbends can hurt or instill a sense of panic, in order to appreciate the techniques I recommend for practising safely and effectively. So…

Why do backbends hurt?

  • It’s not usual for us to purposely open the front of the body! We spend most of our days ‘rounding’ our backs and closing our chests, which means neither our bodies or our minds know how to do proper backbends, often resulting in pain – usually a ‘pinching’ sensation in the lower back or neck.
  • The pain is generally caused by compression of the vertebrae – or, to be more specific, the spinous processes (the knobbly bits on your back) – squeezing against each other. When the back of the neck is compressed, the pain is often accompanied by a sense of panic because the body’s stress response has been activated.
  • Compression in the spine during backbends usually happens because of tightness in the front of the body (even sitting at a desk all day will contribute to this kind of thing), which limits our full range of movement. As a result, we end up over-using the parts of the spine that naturally bend backward – the neck and lower back.
  • To counter this tendency, we need to work on undoing the tightness in the front of the body. That way, we’re able to spread the backbend across the entire spine – and literally take the pressure off the lower back and neck!

A short safety announcement!

Throughout the sequence below, please keep the following points in mind:

  1. Maintain length (and avoid compression) in your lower back by lifting your hip bones up
  2. Lift your rib cage and chest ‘out’ of your pelvis
  3. Keep your neck in a neutral-to-flexed position until you have maximised the extension of your mid-upper back (see 2)
  4. Roll your shoulders back (unless you’re in a posture where your arms are overhead, such as full wheel)
  5. Take your head back last, and only go as far as your breath will let you – if you’re not breathing easily, you’re in danger of injuring your neck
  6. If something doesn’t feel right, STOP!

Backbending sequence

Sun salutations

Surya Namaskara A: Repeat 3 – 5 times, using the variation shown in the video below (instead of lifting the arms and folding forward straight away, there’s a small chest-opening movement to do, which becomes slightly more pronounced with each salutation – as the two repetitions in the film below demonstrate).

Surya Namaskara B: Repeat the standard form of Surya Namaskara B (if you need a reminder, have a look at Ashtanga teacher Rob Leadley’s cheat sheet) 2 – 3 times, and then follow the video below, for a variation on the sequence which helps to release tightness in the front of the body (the hip flexors, abdominal muscles, ribs, chest and shoulders). If it’s difficult to balance or to maintain an neutral pelvis in the lunge-based postures, you can always drop your back knee. Respect your limits.

Standing postures (hip openers)

It might not seem obvious to prepare for backbends by working into the hips, but it’s definitely worth spending some time on these sorts of postures because they give the hip flexors and groin muscles a good stretch – meaning greater extension across the front of the hips and less compression in the lower back during backbends! You can work through the following postures one by one or, if you know how, you can turn the sequence into a vinyasa flow, which will help keep your body and muscles warm, ready for some backbends.

Please click on the photos below and then scroll down to see the further instructions.

And NOW for some backbends!

Remember, stop when your body tells you to stop! You don’t have to do ALL of these postures or complete the suggested number of repetitions, where a number is stated. You can rest between postures too – but avoid bringing your knees directly into your chest (a deep, and in this case unwelcome, counter-stretch to a backbend); instead, take child’s pose with wide knees, or, if you need to lie down, try happy baby pose.

Please click on the photos below and then scroll down to see the further instructions.

Preparing for ‘drop-backs’*

*If you’re able to hold Urdhva Dhanurasana (full wheel) without splaying your knees and compressing your lower back, and your breath moves freely from your nose to your lungs, you might want to begin preparing your body for drop-backs. Otherwise, skip this part of the sequence and move onto the finishing postures.

Finishing postures

After an intense and sustained backbend practice, it’s essential to take some long, passive twists before folding forward again. Start by simply resting on your back with your legs propped up – knees together and feet apart – then move into a supine twist (arms in a ‘T’ shape, knees to one side, and your gaze on the opposite hand). Hold the twist for at least a minute on each side, making small adjustments as your spinal muscles begin to relax. Afterwards, you can either hug your knees to your chest or roll up to sitting for a loose forward fold (knees bent). After that, it’s time to lie down for a well-deserve 5 or 10 minutes in savasana – possibly with a bolster or cushion beneath your knees.

Namaste!


Katy Wright established her yoga practice at the age of 17, during an unusually warm British summer, which she spent outside, working her way through a manual she picked up in a cheap book shop. Fifteen years later, she undertook her teacher training with Union Yoga in Edinburgh, and began teaching as part of the Peacock Tree Yoga team, alongside her job as a journalist with the BBC. Now, as a freelance copywriter, Katy continues to explore the wisdom of yoga in her personal practice and in her blog, The Cat on the Mat.