Backbends are the asanas, that is poses, belonging to the group purvatana.
Purva means ‘East’, tana means ‘stretch’. Traditionally yogis practised asanas looking East, thus purvatana means “stretch of the Eastern, that is front, part of the body”.
Backbends are exactly this, opening and stretching the front body without compressing the back body; this is why one should focus on bending the upper and middle back to avoid accentuating the curve in the lumbar spine.
The muscles and parts of the body stretched and opened in backbends are: quads, psoas, abs, chest, shoulders and throat. This gives us an idea about the physical benefits that can be reaped by practising backbends regularly:
- opening the chest and stretching the related muscles improve the quality of the breath, allowing more oxygen and prana in; plus, a greater expansion of the chest allows deeper and slower breaths: as breath and mind are strictly connected, slower breaths mean a slower mind – particularly, what slows down is that voice from our conscious mind which is usually constantly active – and if the mind is slower we can easily get back a state of calm and serenity. This all contributes to a better quality of life;
- asanas from the purvatana group improve posture and make the spine more flexible. To practise backbends safely and correctly, it is necessary to lenghten the spine and move the vertebrae away from each other before bending backward: this way we create space in the spine. Bending the upper spine backward promotes the opening of the shoulders and contrast a behaviour that is typical of someone with a bad posture, that is rounded shoulders, whereas through the opening of the throat we can realign the cervical spine (which often protrudes forward) with the whole spine. Last but not least, to avoid compression in the lumbar spine, in backbends the ‘tail’ (sacrum + coccyx) is lenghtened towards the feet, which time passing by can improve hyperlordosis. The more flexible is the spine the younger is the person, no matter his/her actual age;
- stretching the ileo-psoas muscle improves the overall health. The modern lifestyle often induces stiffness in this muscle: both living a sedentary life and standing still for many hours are not appropriate activities for the human body and affect the muscle’s health greatly; the psoas is also affected by stress and psychological and emotional traumas. A stiff psoas can cause backache, hips pain, and sciatica. Also, the muscle is connected to the diaphragm, thus if the psoas is stiff the diaphragm can become stiff too reducing the lung capacity (see point no. 1). The diaphragm is also connected to the heart muscle: a stiff psoas can cause heart problems in the long run. If the ileo-psoas is strong and healthy (that is if it’s toned but we are also able to relax it completely), the whole human system will benefit from it.
And that’s not all, because backbends can benefit our psychological, emotional and energetic health:
- backbends stimulate all seven main chakras and the nervous system, thus increasing the energy level – this is why it is better to practise them in the morning and avoid them at night – and at times provoking emotional reactions when blockages are released;
- the expansion of the chest stimulates the heart, both physically and energetically (the heart centre is the fourth chakra, Anahata). A heart that is stimulated is a heart that is open to emotions, relationships, life and love.
Here are a few asanas from the purvatana group that you can try out.
Remember!: it is important to warm up before attempting backbends and to do counter poses after practising them. Counter poses to backbends are forward bends, like Uttanasana, Paschimottanasana, Balasana or Apansana: counter poses can be done in a relaxed, light manner.
* To save the lumbar spine, remember to activate the glutes and the abs before bending backward.
Anjaneyasana, or Low Lunge
Enter the pose from Phalakasana, or Plank pose. Exhaling, bring your right foot between the hands and place the left knee on the ground – the left foot can be either extended or tucked under. Be aware that your front knee is right on top of the ankle, for your knee’s safety. Inhaling, lift your hands from the ground and place them on the front knee for a moment: engage the legs and the core muscles to find balance. When, and if, you feel ready, lift and extend your arms up over head and lenghten the spine. With every inhale lenghten a bit more. When, and if, you feel ready lift your heart towards the sky and bend slightly backward; if you feel any compression in the lumbar spine go back to a neutral position, otherwise you can slowly deepen the pose. Hold for a few breaths. Then bring the hands back to the ground, go back to Phalakasana, and do the same on the other side.
N.B.: the pose is still a backbend, even with the torso in neutral position, due to the back leg’s position.
*If you feel any pain in the back knee, you can place a pillow or a blanket under it or you can fold the mat.
Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose
Lay down on your belly, your hands underneath the shoulders (or next to the chest, if you are flexible). Press the front part of the legs on the ground and inhaling first lift head and shoulders, then lift the torso and bring the heart forward. Keep the pelvis on the ground, the elbows close to the ribs and the shoulders far from the ears. If your neck is fine, you can also roll the head back. Hold the pose for a few breaths, then exhaling relax back to the ground. You can repeat 2-3x.
N.B.: it doesn’t matter how far you can lift the torso, that is not the goal in this pose. Focus on opening the chest and the heart, time passing by the spine will become more flexible and you will be able to lift up a bit more.
*If the pose is too intense, try Ardha Bhujangasana, or Half Cobra pose, or Sphynx pose.
If you are naturally flexible or if you have been practising Bhujangasana for a while now, you can try this variation: King Cobra pose. The pose is alike Bhujangasana, but before lifting the torso you need to bend the legs: knees are hip distance and feet touch. In the final shape feet touch the head… but be patient ;)
*In the picture my hands are in a variation, you can place them as previously explained.
Kapotasana, or Pigeon pose
Start from Phalakasana, or Plank pose. Exhaling bring the right knee first towards the left elbow, then towards the right to open the hip; place the knee close to the right hand and the foot as close as you can to the left hand. It is a very intense pose for the hips, so don’t worry if the foot is not even close to the hand. The back leg stays on the ground, the foot is extended. Hips are squared: in order to have them squared, shift the right hip a bit backward and the hip slighly forward. Don’t sit on the right gluteus: if it is too far from the ground, just place a pillow or too under it. With the hands on the ground, while inhaling you can lift up the torso to deepen the backbend, but remember to lenghten the spine first. Hold for a few breaths, then tuck the back foot under and go back to Phalakasana. Repeat on the other side.
*If the pose is too intense (you can’t enter it or you feel pain in the front knee), try Sucirandhrasana, or Eye of the Needle pose, also known as Supine Pigeon pose.
Urdhva Dhanurasana, or Chakrasana, or Wheel pose
Lay down on your back, bend your legs and place the feet on the ground, hip distance apart, pretty close to your buttocks. Bring the elbows towards the sky and place the hands underneath the shoulders. Slowly lift the hips and the back up, then push with your hands to place the top of the head on the ground. Lenghten the ‘tail’ towards the feet and when, and if, you feel ready push away the floor with your hands and lift you head up off the ground. Lift the heart. Hold for a few breaths, then go back to where you started the same way you lifted up. If you wish you can try the asana other 2-3x.
*If the pose is too intense (it could be), don’t force it. Try instead Sethu Bandha Sarvangasana, or Bridge pose: it is also a great prep pose to Urdhva Dhanurasana.
Ustrasana, or Camel pose
Stay on your knees with your torso in neutral position. Inhaling lenghten the spine and lift the heart, bending backward. If the spine is flexible enough, you should be able to reach the heels with your hands. If your neck is healthy, you can also roll the head back. Hold for a few breaths, then go back to neutral position.
*If the pose is too intense and you can’t reach your heels, try this variation: while you have your back straight place the hands over the kidneys, inhaling lenghten the spine and lift the heart, bending slightly backward. Hold for a few breaths, then go back to neutral position.
Eleonora, your #earthandsoulwanderer
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