Let’s talk about yoga backbends
As someone with a pretty decent range of motion (ROM) in my back thanks to a combination of the bones god gave me, years of surfing which has made my back nice and strong and a very regular yoga practice through my job; you guessed it as a yoga teacher! backbends have always been enjoyable for me. A great pick me up when I need a boost of energy and an easy go to for an insta star pose! But what’s really going on back there in a backbend and why do some people loathe these poses just as I love them?
The first thing to know is that the back is divided into the 3 anatomical sections, across which there are 2 lordotic curves where the back curves inwards and 2 kyphotic where it curves outward. These curves unique to us biped mammals, help the spine withstand great amounts of stress by providing a more even distribution of body weight.The lumbar spine or lower back, has the main job of flexion and extension, that is bending forward and backwards. The thoracic spine or mid back has a lot less movement in the aforementioned plane, however is awesome at twisting, something which the lumbar spine isn’t big on; this is why when we twist in yoga we should generally twist from the mid back up. The delicate vertebrae of the cervical spine, otherwise known as the neck, allow for both of these actions. In a backbend such as Cobra or Wheel pose to name a couple, the backbend itself always happens in the lumbar spine, despite the instruction you may have heard to spread it evenly across the back from some yoga teachers. Also worth mentioning is that depending whether you’re a high or low bender the majority of the bend will either happen for you in either the lower lumbar vertebrae of L4, L5, or higher up In L1 or maybe even towards or in your thoracic spine.
Now let’s talk about bones…The lower down your back you go the thicker your bones get. This makes sense if you think about how your lumbar spine has to support all of the weight from above, with the spine finishing in the 5 fused vertebrae at the end of your spine in your pelvis called the sacrum and finally your coccyx (tailbone). There is a huge difference in the anatomical makeup of our spines and one of the things that may be restricting you going any further in a backbend is compression of bone on bone. This goes against the common belief that it is always tension in the muscles, mainly felt on the opposite side of the body to which you are bending, that is preventing you from going deeper.
The facets of your back bones are the top and bottom faces of each vertebra and the transverse process are the bits of bone that stick out either side of each backbone and function as the site of attachment for muscles and ligaments of the spine as well as the point of articulation of the ribs. Because of your unique anatomical makeup it may just be the case that either your vertebral facets or spinal processes are hitting each other quicker than your more backbendy neighbour, making it physically impossible for you to go any deeper in the pose. If this is happening there’s just no way you’re ever going to get round it I’m afraid!
In Contrast to this if it’s tension restricting you from deepening your backbend this would be felt along the front body. Think of tight quads and hip flexors and a tight chest and how this might affect your ability to get into Camel Pose. Also worth noting is that a lack of strength in the arms,wrists and legs may also be a contributing factor in the depth or indeed ability to get into more showy backbends such as Wheel pose.
To work out which of these factors is stopping you going deeper into your backbend; tension, compression or strength, try and draw your attention to where you can feel it most and how your body is reacting when you move into the pose. If tension is what is stopping you you will feel a pretty uncomfortable pulling sensation on the front of the body. However in the case of compression its less of an ouch! And more of a clunk! That is to say you may even feel mentally like you could go deeper into the pose but there’s a kind of physical wall telling you otherwise that you just can’t seem to move beyond. Compression is felt on the same side of the body as the parts being moved closer towards each other, in this case the bones of your back hitting one another.
Finally a lack of strength causes your muscles to shake and spasm. This is a good indicator to back off and keep working on the previous stepping stone to the pose for a little longer until you have the appropriate strength to support you in the pose. Your yoga teacher should be able to offer you props and modifications for the pose if this is the case. Engaging your core muscles in backbends will help to protect your back and avoid overly hitting compression at you’re extreme ROM, which is not good for the long term health of your bones. And remember to also include long stasis Yin yoga holds such as saddle pose or Sphinx in your backbend practice in order to keep the fascia (connective tissue) running across the front body (The Myofascial front line) nice and hydrated and as pliable as possible. It’s not only muscle tension that can be holding you back in a pose and this often overlooked area of our body is as important to keep mobile as the body’s major muscles.