Yoga backbends & what’s stopping you going deeper!
Now I’m someone with a pretty decent range of motion (ROM) in my back, which means yoga backbends have always come relatively easily to me. This is thanks to a combination of the bones god gave me, years of surfing, which has made my back nice and strong and regular yoga practice, which has made it mobile. Backbends have always been enjoyable for me as a great pick me up when I need a boost of energy and some heart-opening. But what’s really going on back there in a yoga backbend and why do some people loathe these poses just as I love them?
The basic anatomy of the spine
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 our 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, it is much better 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 and mobile vertebrae of the cervical spine, otherwise known as the neck, allow for both of these actions.
The role of your bones in yoga backbends?
In a backbend such as Cobra or Wheel pose, 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 on whether you’re a high or low bender the majority of the bend will either happen for you in the lower lumbar vertebrae of L4, L5, or higher up In L1 or maybe even towards or in your thoracic spine.
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 of your torso from above. The spinal column finishes in the 5 fused vertebrae at the end of your spine 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 that is preventing you from going deeper in yoga poses. If its soft tissue tension stopping you from getting deeper into a yoga pose, then it will be felt mainly on the opposite side of the body towards which you are moving. In the case of compression of bone on bone, it will feel it’s felt on the same side that you are moving towards.
The facets of your backbones are the top and bottom faces of each vertebra and the transverse processes are the bits of bone that stick out either side of each backbone. The later function as the site of attachment for muscles and ligaments of the spine, as well as the point of articulation of the ribs.
How do you know if it’s tension or compression stopping you going deeper in yoga backbend?
Because of your unique anatomical makeup, it may be the case that either your vertebral facets or spinal processes are hitting each other quicker than your more backbendy neighbour. This would make it physically impossible for you to go any deeper in the pose, no matter how much you practice. If bone compression is the issue then there’s just no way you’re ever going to get around 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 of your backbend or your ability to get into more showy backbends such as Wheel pose.
To work out which of these factors is stopping you going deeper in your yoga backbends; tension, compression or strength. Draw your attention to where you can feel the restriction the most and how your body is reacting when you move in and out of the pose. If tension is mainly 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 ouch and more of clunk! That is to say, mentally you may even feel like you could go deeper into the pose, but you encounter a kind of physical wall 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.
How strength can affect your yoga backbend
Finally, a lack of strength may cause your muscles to shake and spasm. This is a good indicator to back off and keep working on the previous stepping stones to the final pose for a little longer. It’s necessary to have the appropriate strength to support you whilst in the pose and to be able to transition in and out of your backbend safely. Your yoga teacher should be able to offer you props and modifications for your backbend if this is the case.
Check out the best yoga props to use in your home practice here.
Slightly engaging your core muscles in backbends will help to protect your lower back. In the case of very mobile spines, this will avoid constantly 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 static Yin yoga holds such as Saddle pose or Sphinx in your backbend practice. This will encourage the fascia running across the front body (The Myofascial front line) as hydrated and pliable as possible. It’s not only muscle tension that can be holding you back in a pose and the often overlooked web of connective tissue of our body, is as important in mobility as the body’s major muscles.
For more breakdowns of yoga poses functions click here.