“Backbends are meant to understand the back parts of our bodies. The front part can be seen with the eyes but the back body can only be felt. That’s why I say these are the most advanced postures, where the mind begins to look at the back.” B.K.S. Iyengar
As we begin to examine backbends, it is important to have an image of the spine. The spine consists of 33 bones, the vertebrae. In particular, starting from the bottom up, we have the coccyx area (4 fused vertebrae), the sacrum (5 fused vertebrae), the lumbar segment (5 vertebrae), the thoracic segment (12 vertebrae) and the cervix (7 vertebrae).
When looking at the side view of the spine, we can see an S-curve. These natural curves are necessary for absorbing vibrations and for preserving the balance and motion range of the spine. A good posture combined with working out of the muscles surrounding the spine will preserve these curves.
There are different kinds of spinal backbends in yoga. There are poses, or asanas, aimed at strengthening the back, that do not use the strength of the arms, but only the muscles of the back, e.g. salabhasana, poses that, apart from the back muscles, also use the strength of the arms and the shoulders for bending deeper, e.g. dhanurasana, and poses that use the muscles of the arms, of the shoulders but also of the legs, e.g. urdhva dhanurasana.
Backbends are primarily aimed to stretching the front body: the chest, the solar plexus, the hips and the thighs. Different backbends aim different parts of the body, but the sensation we should get from any such asana is the opening and lifting of the front side.
In relation to body balance – on the front and back line, the backbends also strengthen the back muscles. Nevertheless, when we focus on the back and as we attempt to perform backbends, we should not forget that the most flexible part of the spine is the lumbar segment and the cervix. As a consequence, when we go deep in such poses the risk of injury is increased. So, we dive deep after we first warm up and really strengthen the thighs and the core, and after we open the hips, the shoulders and the chest. In that way, the backbend will take place along the whole of the spine.
Backbends relate to the anahata chakra, the heart chakra. By opening the chest and the whole front part of the body, which tends to close down, either out of fear, stress, tiredness or habit, we feel freer, happier, more confident, ready for new experiences and relationships. But, exactly because we are used to slouching, backbends may feel unnatural, like swimming in uncharted waters. That sensation brings up fear, anger and irritation, feelings which are interesting to observe during our practice, and maybe we will take a step towards releasing them.
Backbends in yoga are a purely mental journey. We provide the body, restricted as it may be, with the potential to open a little door inside of us, and the beauty in that is that we never know what we will find!
By Panagiota Kostami,
οf the Neda Yoga Shala Team