The spine is the body’s central support structure, the first thing that is formed in a mother’s womb, the root of the human system.  It is made of a chain of strong bones surrounded by muscles protecting sensitive nerves.  It is flexible due to elastic ligaments and spinal disks, which, with tendons, allow the spine to move in all different planes.  A healthy spine is an amazing combination of strength and flexibility. The spinal cord, housed within the spine, controls the function of every single cell, tissue and organ in the body.  

It is therefore fundamental to the quality of our lives to maintain a healthy spine. Practising backbends help maintain the balance between strength and flexibility in the spine, allowing more mobility and strengthening the supporting muscles. 

London yoga practice in an yoga top and organic yoga pants by Asquith

The spine is also the seat of major energy centres, the seven chakras, located along the spine.  When balanced, we live with a sense of stability and harmony.  The main chakra that is stimulated in backbends is anahata chakra, located at the heart centre.  The heart chakra is the seat of our emotions and represents our ability to give compassion and to forgive.  Relationships to those who have hurt us are dealt with in this area.  Opening our hearts in backbending postures creates more openness in our heart and increase our ability to offer compassion to others. Strong backbends can give us the opportunity to release stored emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger but also joy and love and of course help maintain a healthy spine.  It is not unusual to feel tears rise in our eyes as we go into backbends and get in touch with those feelings, as we learn to connect with them on the mat through our Yoga practice.  Backbending can be a healing practice.

The heart is also the region where we store fear.  Our body’s natural response to danger is to curl to protect our most precious and vulnerable part: our heart.  When we go into backbends, we do the exact opposite: we open this vulnerable part of our body to the world, and this takes courage!  We become stronger for it.  Backbends therefore also give us an opportunity to let go of and overcome our fears.

Yoga Teacher Alix Famond wearing an organic yoga top and organic yoga pants by Asquith


The Camel Pose – Ustrasana

Backbends can be more or less intense.  One of the less intense form of backbend is the Camel pose – Ustrasana.  B.K.S Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga that it can be practised conveniently by the elderly and even by persons with spinal injury to help maintain a healthy spine.  It is beneficial to people with drooping shoulders and hunched backs.

Kneeling on the floors, with knees hips-width apart, start with the palms of the hands on the hips. 

The legs must be strong, with thighs rotating inwards. 

Press down through the feet.  Engage the core so that it supports your back by pulling the belly in and up. 

Curve the spine back, lift the sternum, allowing the rib cage to expand. 

Keeping the chest raised, the core engagedand the spine long, bring the hands towards the heels. 

The hands can also cover the soles of the feet, taking you a little deeper into the pose.  

If the hands are on the heels or the soles of feet, bring them back to the hips, supporting the lower back, as you are coming out of the pose.

This pose stretches and tones the whole spine.

Kapotasana


 

A deeper backbend, which is a continuation of Ustrasanais Kapotasana

Once in the kneeling position, stretch the back and take the arms over the head towards the feet, catching the heels. 

Bend the elbows and lower the forearms on the floor. Then stretch the neck and rest the crown of the head on the heels.  This is a difficult transition and usually the hands reach the floor behind the feet first, the elbows are lowered down on the floors and the hands brought towards the feet, catching the big toes and gradually, with practice, catching the heels. 

This asana tones the entire spine as well as the pelvic region, keeping the genital organs healthy.  The heart is gently massaged thanks to the lifting of the diaphragm. 

 

As for the counterposes to backbends, there are different schools.  While some practices recommend twisted postures, others will recommend forward folds.  Adho Mukha Svanasanai.e downward facing dog, which is a half forward bend – half backbend, is a good recommendation, as well as Uttanasana, which, after backbends, is a half forward bend because the spine is passive; the weight is on the legs. However Paschimottanasana (picture below), an intense forward fold, in which the spine is active, is not recommended “until the body can respond to a backward and forward movement at the same time” says B.K.S Iyengar!

Perfect after a long day at  a desk, try practicing these backhanding poses and start to build a healthy spine today.


Alix is a Dharma Yoga teacher as well as a Vinyasa Yoga teacher in London. She teaches at The Power Yoga Company, More Yoga and the Chelsea Harbour Club.  She also teaches private classes and has several private groups in South West London.

Find out more about Alix on her website: www.alixyoga.com.

 

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