9 Yoga Backbends to Stretch and Strengthen Your Spine
Yoga backbends do more than stretch and strengthen. Backbends also build character! Step out of your comfort zone and keep your spine functioning properly by strengthening the muscles that protect it with yoga backbends. And there’s more.
“Given that we can’t actually see our back body, in a metaphorical sense, backbends can help us overcome fear by teaching us to lean into the unknown,” says Openfit Master Trainer Brent Laffoon, and AYP Certified Yoga Teacher Trainer, one of the featured instructors in Yoga52.
Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of backbends and how to do them at every level.
5 Benefits of Backbends
1. Release tension
Laffoon is a huge fan of backbends, especially cobra pose. Backbends help you extend your spine and find release in places where you hold a lot of tension, such as the lumbar spine and the sacrum.
2. Improve posture
Most people bend forward all day long, which places stress on the spine, especially when we are on the computer or texting. Backbends can counter bad posture by strengthening the spinal erectors, the primary muscles involved in creating healthy posture, says Laffoon.
3. Boost energy
Yoga backbends are especially energizing and invigorating, says Laffoon. That’s because they tap into your circulatory system, which increases cerebral blood flow.
4. Lower stress
BKS Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, recommended doing yoga backbends to his students to boost their mood. Adhering to his recommendations, this 2018 study shows how 52 women decreased their stress and anxiety-related symptoms with just 12 sessions of yoga.
5. Promotes deep breathing
Backbends open your shoulders and chest, which can make more space for your lungs. When you open your chest, you increase your capacity for deeper breathing, thus supporting your cardiovascular health. And this 2013 study cites yogic breathing as a way to lower blood pressure.
How to Do a Standard Backbend
For Beginners: Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- For a more beginner-friendly option than the full wheel, stay on your back, walk your feet in toward your glutes (don’t worry about touching your heels).
- Stack your knees over your shins and keep your arms by your sides (or interlace them underneath you).
- Press into your heels and lift your hips away from the floor.
- Keep your gaze toward the ceiling. Avoid looking side to side to protect your spine.
- Hold for three to five breaths before releasing. Repeat as desired.
For Seasoned Yogis: Wheel Pose (Chakrasana)
- Lie down on your back, bend your knees, and flatten your feet on the floor. Walk your heels closer toward your glutes until your knees align with your toes.
- Extend your arms toward the ceiling and flex your hands. Bend your elbows, and align your hands by your ears. Point your fingers forward toward your shoulders.
- Push into your feet and hands simultaneously to lift your hips away from the mat. Hold here for a breath.
- Continue to press into the mat, then lift your head away from the floor. Let it hang between your arms. (All the weight should stay in your hands and feet.)
- Hold the pose for several breaths up to one minute, keeping your knees hip-width apart.
- To release your wheel, bend your elbows and slowly lower your head to the mat, then your hips.
7 Yoga Poses That Use Backbends
Many yoga poses use backbends, and some are more challenging than others. Laffoon suggests that if you are starting out, it is best to do a few stretches, like sun salutations and simple twists, to prepare your spine.
Cow and Cat Poses (Bitilasana and Marjaryasana):
Inhale: Cow pose
- Get down on all fours, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Keep your back flat, your gaze toward the floor, and your neck long.
- As you inhale, lift your tailbone and chest toward the ceiling while dropping your belly toward the mat.
- Keep your shoulders away from your ears, shoulder blades broad across your back, and head in line with your torso.
- Exhale into cat pose.
Exhale: Cat pose
- Start in cow pose.
- As you exhale, round your back, tuck your tailbone, and curl your chin toward your chest.
- Keep your shoulders and knees in place.
- Inhale into cow pose.
- Repeat this flow for up to 10 breaths, or longer if desired
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
- Begin in a kneeling position, stack your knees directly under your hips. Push the tops of your feet into the mat.
- Place your hands behind your back and rest your palms against your sacrum with your fingers pointed down toward the floor.
- Lift your chest, and engage your core, pull your belly button toward your spine. Squeeze your glutes and draw your hips and thighs forward, bend your spine.
- Start with your gaze toward the ceiling as you lean back (and you can see the back wall), option to drop your head back.
- Hold for at least five breaths, up to one minute.
- To return to the starting position, squeeze your glutes, engage your core, and draw yourself back to the starting position. Let your head come up last.
Locust Pose (Shalabhasana)
- Lie on your stomach with your legs together and your arms by your sides.
- Rest your forehead on your mat to protect your neck.
- Inhale to raise your head away from the mat, and look forward.
- Squeeze your inner thighs together to lift them away from the floor.
- Hover your arms off the mat and pinch your shoulder blades together to widen your collar bones.
- Rock forward so that you are on your belly rather than your hip bones.
- Hold for a few breaths, or up to one minute.
- Return to the starting position, then rest.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
- Start in a plank, and lower all the way down the floor. Leave your hands by your shoulders. Untuck your toes and press the tops of your feet into the mat.
- Lengthen your legs and squeeze your thighs together to touch.
- Inhale, press into your palms, and lift your chest away from the floor using the muscles in your arms and back. (Only lift your chest to a height that does not put pressure on your low back.)
- Keep your elbows tucked into your sides by your ribs.
- Open your chest and draw your shoulders away from your ears.
- Hold for a few breaths before lowering back down.
Upward Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
- Starting in plank, lower down to the floor with control through chaturanga. Untuck your toes so that the tops of your feet are on the mat.
- Place your hands underneath your shoulders.
- Keep your legs straight with the tops of your feet pressed into the mat.
- Inhale, push into your hands, straighten your arms, and lift your thighs away from the mat by pressing into your feet.
- Stack your shoulders directly over your wrists.
- Look straight ahead to protect your spine.
- Hold for a few breaths, push back to downward facing dog.
Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- Lie face down on your mat, legs hip-width apart, forehead resting on stacked hands.
- Press the tops of your feet into the floor and straighten your legs as you tuck your tailbone toward the floor. Observe a subtle lift underneath your navel.
- Lift your forehead off your hands and lift your chest as you simultaneously firm your buttocks and the backs of your legs toward the floor.
- Reach both of your arms behind you simultaneously, rotating them so your palms face each other, and bend your knees.
- Lift your chest and legs high enough that you can grab the outsides of your ankles (not the tops of your feet). Try to keep the soles of your feet parallel to the ceiling.
- Keeping your knees hip-width apart, hold your ankles firmly so the backward resistance of your legs helps to keep your chest lifted.
- If your upper back is moving well and you’re able to look upward, give that a try. Avoid throwing your head back, and work on moving your shoulder blades down and away from your ears.
- Hold for a few breaths, then slowly release and rest on your belly.
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