Find Freedom with Backbends this Summer

Though it feels like spring here in DC, the summer is still upon us. Summer is the perfect time for backbending postures like full wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana) which require warm muscles and an open mind. Backbends are intended to broaden and expand the chest and rib cage to enhance the body’s ability to perform breathwork (pranayama). Backbends can be exciting and empowering. They can also, however, be intimidating and scary. If backbends are not a freeing experience for you, your approach—both mentally and physically—may need some fine tuning.

Flipped Dog
Photo Credit: Leo Matsuo / Wardrobe Provide by Endless Summer Design

When performed correctly, backbends increase your range of motion. Many of us spend hours upon hours sitting—and let’s be honest, most of us don’t have the best posture when doing so. As a result, we lose a few degrees of the normal curve in our lumbar (lower) spine. That curve is part of our natural architecture as bipeds, distinctly purposed to provide us humans with the ability to carry our own body weight without damaging our joints and overall health. When we lose that gentle arch in the lower back we increase our likelihood of lower back, hip and knee pain because we aren’t properly stacked to handle our body’s mass as it moves through space.

Backbends help counter our daily damage by increasing extension and restoring that lumbar curve. They have also been linked to arthritis prevention, increased stamina and energy, depression relief, and  improved lung capacity, circulation and digestion. On a more emotional level, many practitioners believe that backbends help them let go of the past and focus on the present, and open their heart when fear has taken it hostage.

Whether you’re looking to improve your emotional or physical health—or both for that matter!—look no further than yoga backbends. From the milder baby cobra and sphinx poses to the more intense camel and king pigeon poses, there is a backbend for every level.

Check out my Favorite Eight:

  1. Sphinx Pose
  2. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
  3. Bow (Dhanurasana)
  4. King Pigeon (Kapotasana)
  5. Camel (Ustrasana)
  6. Wild Thing (Camatkarasana )
  7. Full Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
  8. Dancer (Natarajasana)

If you fall into that “intimidated/scared” category when it comes to attempting backbends, here are a few helpful hints to do them the right way:

  • Warm up your body! A few Sun As and Bs should do the trick. The key is to move the body in ways that open the chest, hip flexors, quads and hips.
  • Focus on maintaining length in the front body. True, backbends increase extension in the lower back but people have a tendency to collapse in these poses, crunching the lumbar spine. To avoid back pain, focus on keeping a broad chest and long front body, and bending from the middle and upper back instead of hinging from your sacrum.
  • Don’t squeeze your booty. Squeezing the muscles of your rear end counteracts internal rotation of the hips which is essential in all backbends to avoid compression of the spine. When you activate your gluteus maximus, your hips externally rotate causing your knees to splay wide. To develop the muscle memory needed to encourage internal rotation of the hips, squeeze a block between your thighs when practicing full wheel, camel, and other belly-up backbends.
  • Breathe. Fear can be paralyzing in a backbend and the more you resist the more likely you are to tense the muscles that lead to compression and ultimately discomfort. When going into backbends, focus on your breath and allow your mind to calm down and enjoy all the goodness a backbend can bring.

Just a quick note of caution (safety first!): If you have any back issues, please consult with your yoga instructor and doctor before performing any backbends.

MoYoga on Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana)

Wheel is one of my absolute favorite yoga postures. It’s at the same time playful and powerful. It also transports me back to when I used to take gymnastics–ah, the good old days of effortless flexibility! Wheel is both a back bend and chest opener, great for relieving tension in the upper back, shoulders, and hip flexors. It also strengthens all of the body’s major muscles groups, firing up you quads, hamstrings, glutes, biceps, triceps, shoulders, and the list goes on!

To get into wheel, lay flat on your back, feet planted on your mat hip-width apart. You should be able to graze your heels with your fingertips. This is the same set up you would use if you were pushing up into bridge.

Photo Credit: Leo Matsuo

Reach your hands up and overhead, planting palms flat next to your ears, fingertips facing toward your shoulders. Pull your elbows in toward your center line, tuck your tailbone, and on an inhalation press up through your hands and feet. If you’re just starting out, you can come to an intermediary position by resting on the crown of your head before pressing all the way up into full wheel. When taking this variation, be sure to support your weight with your palms and arms rather than your head and neck.

Photo Credit: Leo Matsuo

In full wheel, your arms will be straight, head heavy, and legs fully engaged. Keep your knees drawing together, thighs spiraling inwards, no splaying of the knees. As your shoulders, chest, and hip flexors open up, work to press your chest through your arms. You can also begin to play with coming up on the balls of your feet and lifting one leg at a time for some added intensity.

Photo Credit: Leo Matsuo

Once you’ve taken 5 to 8 deep breaths, tuck your chin and gently come down, one vertebrae at a time. Once down, resist the temptation to draw your knees into your chest. Repeat this another 2 or 3 times, then lay on the mat in reclining butterfly.

Enjoy this asana, letting yourself be free, open and strong!