When, Why, And How To Do A Backbend: A Deep Dive Into Backbending

February 27, 2024
When, Why, And How To Do A Backbend: A Deep Dive Into Backbending

Backbend-type postures are present in most contemporary postural yoga styles. When I travel to teach workshops, backbends are always a popular category of postures to discuss. Students have many questions about how to do backbends comfortably and safely. And, after all the time most of us spend folding forward during the day, driving, typing, etc., we sometimes instinctually feel that it would be helpful to bend in the other direction. So why then do students often struggle so much with backbending? And how can we evolve our backbends in a better direction? Read on for a deep dive into backbending.

Why do backbending?

Backbending in our yoga practice has many potential benefits. Bending backward can help open up the front of our body and counteract all the hunching forward most of us do in our daily lives. Backbending postures often feel energizing and uplifting to practitioners. They tend to be stimulating to the nervous system. They can be fun, and backbends are part of an anatomically balanced yoga practice. Backbending involves the whole body. So postures in this category can increase the range of motion in our hips, spine, and shoulders. The increased range of motion and feeling of length along the front of the body can result in greater ease and comfort in other activities that we do in daily life.

Terminology

Before we get too far into this article, let’s talk conceptually about the idea of backbending. How we think of the actions happening in this category of poses relates to how we approach them. So first, let me say that my overarching concept about this category of poses is not one of bending backwards. Backbend is a somewhat erroneous term for this category of postures. This is because in my mind what we’re really doing, anatomically and functionally, is front opening. Thinking of these poses as bending backward can sometimes lead us in unhelpful directions when we start working with this group of postures. For instance, if we try to force movement into only our back.

Keeping the idea in mind of this group of poses as “front-opening” postures, notice that none of the Sanskrit names of common postures in this category actually translate into the word backbend! Instead, postures have names like ustrasana (camel), dhanurasana (bow), and urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow). These all describe something that is rounded. But how do we get into these rounded shapes? I’m going to suggest there are a couple of ideas that are key to comfortable backbends.

The first, as I’ve already alluded to, is front opening rather than backbending. And, related to that is the idea of relaxing and allowing tissue to open, rather than pushing and trying to effort our way into flexibility. In backbending, the pieces that students are usually missing are an anatomical piece (identifying the right flexibility piece) and a technique piece. So in this article, we’ll take a look at backbending through both an anatomical and a technique lens.

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Three types of backbends

Before we get into the anatomy and techniques of backbending, let’s talk about the different types of backbends. We could organize back-bending-type postures into three main categories. In one type of backbending posture, you are usually prone (lying on the floor face down) and you use your arms to provide resistance for increasing length. In the second category of backbends, you are usually supine (lying on the floor face up) and dropping into or pushing up into the pose. The third category of backbends is a special category that I’ll call dynamic backbending. This includes poses like dropbacks in the Ashtanga practice where the posture is about moving in and out of the pose, rather than holding the pose. Let’s look further at what defines each of these categories of backbends as well as some examples.

Prone backbends

One of the first backbends that we often learn is one that we sometimes forget is a backbend! And that is upward facing dog. In vinyasa-style practices, we do this pose a lot. It is part of most variations of sun salutations and the connecting movements in between postures. It’s a great example of the prone type of backbend. We are connected to the floor with our hands and feet. So, we can use the resistance of the floor to move more deeply into the pose. We are in a similar position in shalabhasana (locust pose). In a pose like dhanurasana, we use the resistance created by holding our ankles and reaching our feet away to move more deeply into the pose.

Some prone backbends:

  • Upward facing dog
  • Shalabasana
  • Bhekasana
  • Dhanurasana
  • Ganda bherundasana (third series Ashtanga pose)
Dhanurasana - A Prone Backbend

Supine backbends

When we do supine backbends we use our body in a different way. We still have some parts of our upper and lower body connected to the floor. Often it’s our hands and feet that are connected to the floor, as in urdhva dhanurasana or purvottanasana. But sometimes we’re in a kneeling position and it’s our shins and the tops of our feet that connect our lower body to the floor. For example, that’s our position in poses like ustrasana and kapotasana (the Ashtanga version). In this category of backbends, we still have the resistance of the floor to press against, but we use it in a different way.

Some supine backbends:

  • Purvottanasana
  • Ustrasana
  • Laghu vajrasana
  • Kapotasana (Ashtanga version)
  • Urdhva dhanurasana

Dynamic backbends

Finally, we have a particularly interesting category of backbend postures, that I’ll call dynamic backbending. These are postures where we actively move into and out of a backbend-type posture, rather than holding the pose. These curious poses aren’t particularly common in more static styles of yoga practice. But they do show up in the Ashtanga practice, especially in the intermediate and advanced series.

Some dynamic backbends:

  • Parsva dhanurasana
  • Supta vajrasana
  • Dropbacks
  • Handstand drop overs
  • Tic tocs
  • Parivrttasana (Ashtanga fourth series pose)
Need to work on your dropbacks?

Anatomical breakdown

Now, let’s get into some anatomy. We could consider two main anatomical parts to a backbend, the pelvis part and the shoulder part. But really, these two main parts are connected by our spine. So, what happens at the pelvis influences what happens at our shoulder joints, and vice versa. But, for the sake of anatomical understanding, let’s break backbends down into these two parts.

The pelvis

In order to take our body backward, our pelvis has to rotate at the hip joints. We have to do a posterior pelvic tilt. The muscles that are most responsible for restricting that movement are the muscles that contract to take our pelvis into an anterior tilt. Those muscles are our hip flexors. From superficial to deep, they include rectus femoris (one of the quadriceps), the more anterior portions of all of the adductors (with the exception of adductor magnus), iliacus, and psoas major. After many years of observing students and exploring backbends in my own body, I’ve found that rectus femoris, in particular, is a key place to focus on increasing length so that our pelvis can tilt posteriorly.

What about gluteus maximus?

Anatomically, what about the gluteus maximus? Should you contract it or relax it? Glute max is a hip extender when there is enough resistance. For instance, glute max isn’t super active when we are walking, but it kicks in when we run. It’s also an external hip rotator. So, in practice what that usually means is that when you strongly contract it, you bring the butt closer to the spine and bring the knees apart. That shortens the space at the lumbar spine. Often this is related to that “crunchy feeling” in the lower back that so many people feel in backbending postures.

Although anatomically we’re not working against the pattern of backbending if we contract glute max, I lean toward relaxing glute max for most people. Another way of saying that is, don’t contract it with 100% force. Once you start to press up (if we’re thinking about urdhva dhanurasana specifically), make sure you utilize other hip extenders such as the hamstrings.

Relaxing glute max tends to support not overdoing the bend in the lower back. Realistically, even if we try to completely relax our glutes, our body will turn these muscles on anyway, just not to the same degree as if we consciously squeeze them. So, it’s not that this contraction won’t happen at all. But, working with the intention of relaxing glute max tends to leave more space in the lumbar spine for many practitioners. By backing off of the full contraction of the glute max, you also reduce the amount of external rotation created by these muscles.

The shoulder girdle

If we’re considering all the postures in the larger category of backbending postures, then the position of the shoulders and arms varies a bit with the individual pose. If we look specifically at urdhva dhanurasana, or wheel pose, when we first set ourselves up, the shoulder and elbow joints are both flexed. We also need to externally rotate at the shoulder joints. So the main muscles we need to lengthen to allow those movements are the muscles that do the opposite actions.

Latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major

The two biggest muscles that contribute to internal rotation of the humerus at the shoulder joint are latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major. The latissimus dorsi also contributes to extension of the arm at the shoulder joint. So lengthening those lats is a key part of being able to press up into wheel. Even though the folks with tight, strong lats have the feeling that their arms aren’t strong enough in backbends, what’s actually true, is that they can’t access that strength. They’re working against their own tension and gravity. That makes pushing through the arms and shoulders in backbends feel like a lot of work!

Triceps brachii

Your triceps are both shoulder extenders and elbow extenders. In fact, they are very similar in this position to the rectus femoris which flexes the hip and extends the knee. In urdhva dhanurasana, the triceps muscles at the setup phase of this pose are lengthened and therefore weaker relative to their strength once you are part way up in the pose.

It’s worth pointing out that I have met many students who swear that their shoulders are too tight to do a backbend. Of course, it is possible that you have tight shoulders and that it is contributing to the restriction of getting up into a full wheel pose. However, most of the time, it is the hip flexors that are too tight. That lack of movement at the pelvis (rotating posteriorly) actually adds force into the shoulder girdle, through the arms, and into the hands. This means that the arms have to work extra hard to overcome the additional force coming from the tension in the hip flexors. This creates dynamic tension that feels like the shoulders are too tight, but they usually aren’t.

If you’re curious whether your shoulders are too tight, wherever you are right now, raise your arms above your head. Are you able to make a straight line between your arm(s) and your torso? If so, I would ask you, do you need much more flexibility than that to be in a backbend? No, you don’t. So it’s probably not tight shoulders that prevent you from pushing up into a wheel pose. Read on to see my preparation.

The spine

The final anatomical piece of backbending postures in general, and urdhva dhanurasana specifically, is the spine. In backbends, our spine is in extension. Therefore, muscles that flex the spine can restrict our movement in backbending. Rectus abdominis, external obliques, and internal obliques all work together to flex the spine. If these muscles are tight or “posturally held” in a flexed position, then you’re likely to have a harder time getting the spine into an extended position as it is in backbends.

Techniques: Getting started with backbends

The first backbend we often work with is upward facing dog. We sometimes forget to include this pose as a backbend. But it is. Our intention in backbending is to lengthen the front of the body. Upward dog is a good place to explore how easy, or not, it is to find that length as well as to access the spinal extension that goes with it. The most important pieces of a comfortable upward dog are also relevant to deeper backbends like urdhva dhanurasana.

Most students’ first backbend: Upward facing dog

The main concept in upward facing dog is to intentionally distribute the bend throughout the spine. Be aware that the cervical spine moves the easiest, then the lumbar spine. The most difficult part of the spine to move in a flexion/extension direction is the thoracic spine. So, be attentive to this and notice if you or a student is trying to overdo bending in the neck. If you’ve thrown your whole head back and cranked your neck to look at the ceiling, but the rest of your spine isn’t bending, then you’re not in a backbend yet. The same idea holds true for dumping the whole effort of backbending into the lumbar spine. Instead, explore how you can find more movement from that sticky thoracic spine and worry less about how “bendy” your upward dog looks.

Upward Facing Dog

A technique for the thoracic spine

If you’re looking for a new way to explore upward facing dog and avoid scrunching your neck and dumping into your lower back, I have a technique that I teach to bring the focus to the thoracic spine. Start from a chaturanga or if you need to drop your knees, a low tabletop position. From there, drop your head, letting your chin drop all the way toward your chest. Then from your felt sense, imagine where C7, that knobbly vertebra at the base of your cervical spine is.

Put your attention on the vertebrae just below that, T1 and T2. From that place, and with your head still dropped, start to lift that part of your spine, slowly uncurling it from flexion into extension, but with the head dropped the whole time. Finally, when you’ve unwound as much of the spinal flexion in the upper thoracic as you can without moving the head, then lift the head just until you can look a little above the horizon. Let the lower back take care of itself. You are definitely going to move into it but allow the depth of it to happen on its own and at the end of the movement.

It may take some exploration and practice to get this movement down smoothly. It’s often the opposite of how students have a habit of moving into upward dog. So it can take a bit of unlearning. It can also take some time before you feel an increase in movement in this often sticky part of the thoracic spine. Be patient. It starts with the intention to move this area. It can take some time to change.

Other aspects of upward dog

Other important pieces of upward dog that are relevant to other backbends include establishing the right distance for you from your hands to your feet. Additionally, as I discussed earlier in the anatomy section of this article, finding a balance of relaxation and engagement of gluteus maximus is important for maintaining space in the lower back. If you want to dive deeper into how these concepts specifically come up in upward facing dog, check out my article: Sun Salutations: Part 7.

Techniques: Urdhva dhanurasana

After upward facing dog, the most common backbend that students ask me about is urdhva dhanurasana. There are a few key techniques that I regularly suggest to make this a more comfortable posture for students. The first is to do some preparation stretches immediately before you do backbends in your practice. Urdhva dhanurasana is a fairly deep backbend. Doing some preparation work can go a long way toward lengthening the right tissues to create the space we’d like along the front of the body, and more evenly distributing length along the spine.

Preparations

Start with the pelvis. As I said earlier, the torso is connected to our pelvis by our spine. If the hip flexors are tight, opening the muscles around the shoulder girdle will likely not provide that much assistance to our backbending. There is a series of three preparations for deeper backbending that I regularly teach students which focus on opening the hip flexors. These are all effective ways to lengthen the hip flexors, but require a progressively deeper range of motion. To get the most benefit, I recommend doing a few repetitions of a preparation stretch immediately before you want to do urdhva dhanurasana. You can choose whichever version of the preparations that I describe below works for you.

First version

In the simplest version, come to your knees and sit back on your heels. If completely flexing the knee joint is contraindicated for you or causes pain, then place a block or a couple of blocks between your heels and sit on the blocks. Then place your hands on the floor behind you. You can also hold blocks in your hands if you can’t reach the floor. Finally, lift your hips up off your heels as much as you can. Your knees don’t have to squeeze together but don’t let them separate too much.

Second version

If you want to take the preparation stretch deeper, you can do the same setup, but come down on your forearms instead of staying on your hands. This will deepen the stretch. But, keep your attention on lifting the hips so you make the best use of the stretch through the important tissues, those hip flexors. If needed, you can do a downward facing dog after doing this version.

Third version

Finally, there is a third version for those who are looking for a deeper stretch. This time, come to your knees, but tuck your toes underneath so your feet are dorsiflexed. Then sit back on your heels and reach your hands to grasp around the broad part of each of your feet. Then again, lift your hips to stretch your hip flexors. It is normal to feel these stretches close to the knee. Don’t worry, this is correct.

Preparations for the shoulders

Students often ask if bridge pose is a good preparation pose for urdhva dhanurasana. A modified bridge pose doesn’t do much to stretch your hip flexors. But it can be a helpful prep for your shoulders. To get the benefit of this pose and open your shoulders for urdhva dhanurasana, emphasize tucking your shoulders under as if you were doing a shoulder stand.

A Shoulder Prep For Backbending

Other techniques

After prepping both the hips and shoulders, there are a couple of other suggestions that I regularly make to students about urdhva dhanurasana. One is to check the distance from your hands to your feet if your lower back feels compressed. Often students set up for urdhva dhanurasana with a distance from their hands to their feet that is too short for the amount of flexibility that they actually have. Unless you are naturally very bendy, putting a longer distance between the hands and feet will give you the feeling of more space in the lower back. Additionally, as I mentioned already, don’t over-contract your glutes (glute max that is).

Other techniques for shoulder tension

If you struggle with pushing up into wheel pose, or your shoulders feel too tight, then there are a couple of techniques that can help. If you are practicing on your own, you can try angling some blocks against the wall. You’ll then place your hands on those angled blocks to reduce the elbow and shoulder flexion when you’re setting up. If you’re working with this modification, make sure you set your mat under your blocks and make sure your blocks are secure against the wall before you press up. That should keep the blocks from sliding around as you start to press up.

As I mentioned earlier, reducing the length in the triceps by reducing the elbow and shoulder flexion gives you access to more of the strength in your triceps. That’s why this modification makes it easier to push up. If you’re practicing with a teacher, you can create a similar modification by placing your hands on your teacher’s ankles and then pressing up into your wheel pose. Also keep in mind that your proportions, the relative length of your arms/torso versus your legs, may influence how urdhva dhanurasana feels to you.

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Myths and misunderstandings

Students’ experiences in backbending are extremely varied. And, as I’ve already highlighted in this article, often our felt sense of something doesn’t match the anatomical explanation we make up about it. For example, I already explained why the feeling that your arms are too weak likely isn’t exactly true. It’s that your arms aren’t in a position to access the strength you have because the triceps are in a fully lengthened position and therefore weaker. And likewise, that feeling that your shoulders are tight may also be true, but some part of that tension is likely related to tension in the hip flexors. Lengthening your hip flexors can allow you to rotate the pelvis more, placing the shoulder girdle at a slightly different angle to the floor, and resulting in a feeling that your shoulders aren’t as tight as you thought they were.

Similarly, there are other common myths and misunderstandings that come up around backbending generally and urdhva dhanurasana in particular. Another of these misunderstandings is that you need “strong legs” or to strongly push through the legs in urdhva dhanurasana. The more tension we put on the pelvis by contracting things, generally the more difficult it is to allow it to rotate into a comfortable place.

Sure, we need some activity in the legs in order to push up into the pose. But you’ll usually get further with your range of motion if you keep my favorite aphorism in mind: Use as much strength as necessary, but as little as possible. That applies to the common misunderstanding about squeezing gluteus maximus in urdhva dhanurasana as well. Lengthening happens when we allow it to, and trying to force it by doing extra contracting or squeezing of things won’t get us there faster.

Cautions

Backbending can be fun and energizing, but it also has a few cautions. Because of all the activities that we tend to do that focus our movement in a spinal flexion direction, initially, we may need to go slowly and patiently to create the length to do backbending comfortably. One of the most common reasons students experience back pain or discomfort in backbending is simply overdoing it. They try to go too deeply too quickly and often push too hard to create a shape their body isn’t ready to do yet. For example, when doing a pose like urdhva dhanurasana, students will sometimes create too short of a distance between hands and feet with the idea that this is “better” or “more advanced.” What it actually does is compress the lumbar spine and often results in that crunchy feeling that students frequently describe in the low back.

If you’re just getting started with backbending, consider doing only gentle versions of upward dog or the preparations that I describe in this article for a while before you dive into deeper backbend poses that require significantly more length and openness along the front of the body. And of course, if you have spinal issues or other specific medical diagnoses that might make backbending contraindicated, check in with your doctor to see what makes sense for your body before you dive into backbending.

Begin With Gentle Backbending
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Conclusion

Backbends can be fun and good for opening the front of our body. They can help restore some balance with all the forward-reaching activities we do during the day. If you’re new to backbending or you’ve been struggling with backbending poses, be patient and take your time. Start by working to intentionally lengthen those hip flexors in more accessible postures like upward facing dog or dhanurasana. Then, as you gain more mobility, you can add the challenge of poses like urdhva dhanurasana.