There's a saying in yoga: you're as young as your spine is flexible. A supple spine may be not only aesthetically lovely, it's also a measure of health — a stiff back can be the cause or symptom of a legion of other body troubles.
And if you've ever spent a day hunched over a computer or carrying young children, you have probably instinctively reached your arms overhead at some point, stretching backward to counteract the forward slouch.
Backbends will help strengthen and stretch your spine, but they also help to open the entire front side of the body, including the chest, shoulders, and hip flexors. The beauty of the poses is secondary — the freedom to be found in our bodies is the greatest benefit.
Backbends include deep poses like Upward Bow / Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and King Dancer (Natarajasana), and more gentle poses like Sphinx (Salamba Bhujangasana) and Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana). They can be intimidating — particularly the deep poses — without the proper knowledge, but the tips below should help bring them back down to earth.
Always learn and practice under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher, and avoid backbends if you have a recent or serious back injury.
Perhaps you're aiming toward a full spinal extension like Wheel Pose (also known as Upward Bow Pose). It's important to remember that yoga is not a competition. Be honest with yourself about your current abilities and remember that every body is different. Don't push yourself into the pose just because the person next to you is doing it!
If you're new to yoga, it may take you a year or longer to be able to come into Wheel — and that's normal and great! Never rush into the full expression of any backbend and always work within your current range of flexibility.
Do Modify Poses & Use Props
Once you start working your way into a range of backbends, your teacher should offer modifications and the use of props, such as blocks and straps, to help you deepen your practice. This will ensure you learn the proper alignment and fundamentals of the poses before attempting to go further.
Always work closely with your teacher; work on getting it right the first time. Many injuries happen when students habitually repeat misalignments because they're rushing to deepen the pose before they're ready.
Do Learn the Transitions
The majority of injuries in yoga don't happen during the poses themselves but during the transitions between poses.
Take your time coming into a backbend, gradually lengthening your spine to deepen the position. Never jump right into the full expression of the pose but make your way there smoothly, calmly, and with a clear mind. Even the more gentle backbends can cause injury if performed too quickly.
When coming out of the backbend, focus on your breath and keep your mind calm and relaxed. Never, ever release a backbend in one sudden movement; instead move slowly and gradually until you are in a neutral position.
Don't Crunch Your Neck
If you're in alignment and using the correct form, your backbend should maintain length all the way through the arch. It may seem that tilting your head backwards will increase the arch of your backbend, but doing so can cause discomfort and even injury.
Keep your neck relaxed in backbends and allow your head to tilt back only once you have reached the maximum extension of your spine.
Do Practice Counter Poses
Counter poses move your body in the opposite direction of the pose before. For backbends, this means forward bends. Doing counter poses returns your spine to proper alignment and helps to prevent injury.
Always wait until you've completed a full series of backbends and returned to a neutral position before performing counter poses. Doing them between deep backbends can stress the back muscles and opening your spine up to injury.
For example, if you're working up to Upward Bow / Wheel, first practice Locust, Bow, Camel, and/or Bridge, and then complete all rounds of Upward Bow / Wheel Pose (usually three times, but sometimes several more!). Recline on your back with knees bent and feet flat to neutralize your spine; then counter stretch in Knees-to-Chest (Apanasana) or Child's Pose (Balasana).
Don't Stop Breathing
Lengthening your spine in backbends alters the position of the ribs and respiratory system, which can shrink your lung capacity and constrict your breathing range. This is normal, so don't let it scare you the first time.
Keep your inhalations and exhalations steady, even you can't breathe quite as deeply as in other poses. Focusing on your breath will help to calm and clear your mind, which can allow you to go deeper in the poses.
Bend It Like Yogis
With patience, practice, and a calm mind, your spine will open up to backbends in ways you may never have imagined. Practice diligently but don't forget to breathe and relax.
Increased spinal flexibility may be your key to the fountain of youth!