It’s no secret to most of you who know me “yogically” (hmm…does that sound weird?) know that I am a backbending fiend. It’s kind of my thing. We tend to gravitate toward and favor the poses that we’re best at, the ones where we consider ourselves “advanced.” I confess: I know I’m a good backbender. Even though I’m supposed to, as a yoga teacher, shun words like “good” and “bad” and “advanced.” But my spine is flexible, and moves easily, and I can move into deep, graceful backbends with little fanfare. (Can’t say the same for inversions, though, or arm balances, or spinal twists, the absolute bane of my existence).
That I’m “good” at backbending is only a small part of why I love them. We’ve got a slew of physical benefits to enjoy when we backbend with intelligent alignment and awareness, especially in the deepest organs, which get squeezed and stretched and massaged and wrung out like thick, plump sponges. Backbends stretch the front of the torso, including abdominals, front of the hips, thighs, shoulders and chest. They increase energy and strength in the back body, from muscles along the spine to buttocks, wrists and legs. Muscles around the chest and heart are released and expanded, increasing circulation to flow freely to both heart and lungs. The thymus gland, located in the upper chest, is massaged and stimulated and builds up immune function. Same goes for the lymph nodes in the armpits and groin, which in turn pump lymphatic fluids into tissues. Cerebral-spinal fluids move freely up and down the body, relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system while stimulating metabolism. The whole digestive system is stretched while kidneys and adrenals are squeezed, encouraging better digestion and detox, and releasing adrenaline that gives you that light, happy rush you might experience in a backbend.
And that’s just the tip of the backbending iceberg. In the subtle body, energy is moved through the nadis, channels that flow to concentrated points of energy called chakras. Backbends specifically open Anahata (heart) and Manipura (solar plexus) chakras, which govern our capacity to give and receive love and our ability to assert our personal power, respectively. From this perspective, backbends greatly relieve depression and anxiety, helping us break down our guards, feel empowered, and face the world with openness and vulnerability.
Backbending is the counterpose to our daily lives, which mostly consist of us sitting, slumped over our computers or plates, commuting, walking with shoulders hunched in poor posture, protecting our hearts from a world that promises pain and dilemma and disappointment and loss. Peter Rizzo, master teacher and founder of Bhava Yoga in Vermont, recently said in a workshop that this means we’re perpetually in forward folds, all the time. That being the case, backbends shouldn’t get short shrift in our practice, but should really be front and center, the apex of our short time on the mat.
This month, yogis and yoginis, I’m quietly nudging you to weave extra backbends into your practice. Keep in mind you don’t have to have an especially flexible spine to drop into deep postures like Wheel and Camel. Backbends are actually about two things: opening the upper (thoracic) spine and chest, and opening the front of the hip (the psoas muscle). Knowing this, my favorite backbending mantra was born, a gentle reminder about how to approach backbends (and life): Strong legs. Open heart. Say it silently on each breath while backbending: “Strong legs” (inhale). “Open heart” (exhale).
Warm up with a few rounds of Chandra Namaskara (Moon Salutes).
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon)
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel)
Kapotasana (King Pigeon)
Hanumanasana (Monkey God)
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon)
Viparita Dandasana (Upward Facing Staff)