Not just because it looks cool, though admittedly, some backbends look pretty darn fabulous.
But I know that for me, it sometimes feels like everything in my day is designed to collapse my heart center. I bend forward over my car steering wheel, over students’ desks, over the stove, over the sink, over my computer. Sitting on pretty much any common piece of furniture (car seat, classroom chair, home sofa — even my home desk stool designed to help posture) plunks me on my tailbone instead of my sitting bones, rounding my spine away from my natural curve. And of course any time I’m anxious, angry, in a hurry, or otherwise stressed, my shoulders creep up and forward, up and forward, up and forward. I even sleep on my side with my shoulders curling in toward one another.
And all that stuff? Accounts for a lot of my day (and night). As a result, the muscles across my upper and mid back have a tendency to be overstretched and lacking in strength. Similarly, the muscles across the front of my chest have a tendency to be tight and constricted, lacking in elasticity. And I don’t think I’m atypical in this.
From a purely musculoskeletal perspective, without even getting into other benefits they have, backbends offer a counter pose to the forward-bending and forward-leaning positions that many of us are in for a good chunk of our days.
SAFETY NOTE: I am not a certified yoga teacher, and this post is not professional advice. That said, my totally non-professional opinion is that you please take care of your neck and low back if and when you attempt any backbending. A guide I’ve found useful is to imagine leading the backbend from the heart center and to work to lengthen the spine, creating space. I recommend — again, totally non-professionally — avoiding overarching the neck and low back, which actually tends to compress vertebrae into one another. It may mean that you don’t create quite as bendy a shape, but in my experience, I’ve found the relative lack of pain and injury to be 110% worth it.
We’re going to look at a few different seated backbends in this post and a few prone backbends in the next, all of which are suitable counter poses to the forward bends from last week. A few general safety tips:
- Support your backbend from your base. Generally speaking, this is going to mean engaging the muscles of some part of the body below the back, like the pelvis, thighs, or feet. How much support you’ll need will depend on how intense the individual backbend is for you.
- Where applicable, find a comfortable position for your shoulders, elbows, and wrists, making sure those joints aren’t forced out of their natural alignment.
- This is important enough to bear repeating: Don’t “dump” into your neck or low back. Rather, envision lengthening your spine and leading the arc with your heart.
The first series we’re going to look at are some seated backbends:
While I do <3 the variety and detail in this video, it's probably worth noting that these backbends can be modified to include other seated positions. Sitting kneeling or in a cross legged position may well weight your lower body enough to support your spine through these bends. The only lower body support you may need is a consciousness that your lower body isn't lifting off the chair, bed, or floor — which, admittedly, is a more or less intense effort depending on the individual.
In terms of arm positions, generally speaking, bringing your arms in front of you or out toward the sides will result in a gentler, subtler backbend. Bringing the arms behind you — particularly bringing the hands close in by your bum — opens the fonts of the shoulders a lot and tends to create a backbend that’s more pronounced and “stretchier” in front. Especially if you’re newer to backbends, it’s a good idea to start out gently and move slowly until you find your edge; that way you don’t accidentally race past it.
Gentle backbending still moves the body out of the “heart closed” position, so it’s still giving a lot of benefit. Although it can be tempting to think that if you’re not doing the biggest bendiest backbend, then you’re not bending enough — that really isn’t true. Simply moving your body into a new shape (or a shape where it doesn’t spend a lot of time) is perfectly awesome.
And although it may not be practical to incorporate every arm position — even if you can do every arm position — in every situation (e.g., in office chairs, riding the bus), in general, chair-based backbends are versatile asanas for a lot of people. For example, when I’m sitting for long periods of time, I like to try to do some kind of backbend — whether or not it’s my most vigorous backbend — every 15 to 30 minutes. Obviously, your mileage may vary on the time between backbends, but it’s something to play with and work out for yourself.