“Backbends are rejuvenating. They give energy and courage and combat depression. They open the chest and make the spine flexible. The arms and shoulders become strong. The mind and body become alert.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
The above quote encapsulates what backbending asanas do for me. Backbending asanas are incredibly therapeutic – it leaves me feeling rejuvenated and strengthened. They help to improve and maintain the flexibility and mobility of my spine. At the same time, they help to develop strength in my back, legs and shoulder.
That said, backbending may not be accessible to everyone – for example, people who experience stiffness in their back area. Yet, it is important to do backbending asanas, as they help to prevent back problems that may be caused by sitting for long periods.
Here are two asanas that are effective in backbending:
(1) Bridge pose
First, the bridge pose, or setu banda sarvangasana. (This is a gentler pose as compared to the wheel pose, so practice this first if you are a beginner.)
Benefits: This pose is beneficial as it improves flexibility in both the spine and shoulders. It also stretches other body parts, such as your chest, neck and hips. It is also beneficial to your digestive system, as well as your cardiovascular system, as it improves digestion and blood circulation respectively.
How to: To get into this pose, lie on your back. Then, bend your knees and place your feet parallel to each other, hip-width apart. Press your feet into the floor and lift your hips with your hands. With your hands together under your back, draw your shoulder blades further onto the back and lift your hips higher. Clasp your hands together and place them behind your heels, on the mat.
To get out of the pose, release your hands and slowly lower your hands onto the mat.
Variations: If you are unable to do this, practice the supported bridge pose. Place a block below your sacrum area. This aids in passive stretching of your muscles.
(2) Wheel pose
Second, the wheel/upward bow pose, or urdhva dhanurasana.
Benefits: Like the bridge (setu banda sarvangasana), the pose improves flexibility in both the spine and shoulders. It has the added benefit of stretching your wrist and forearms, as they are engaged as well.
How to: To get into this pose, lie on your back. Then, bend your knees and place your feet parallel to each other, hip-width apart. From here, bend your arms and place your palms beside the shoulder. Inhale and lift your torso up, and come to the top of your head. Lift your body up into an arch.
To get out of the pose, bend your elbows, and slowly lower your head down onto the ground.
Variations: If you are unable to do this, practice the wheel pose with your forearms on the ground and your hands clasped together, instead of using your hands.
Lastly, remember to end off all backbending poses with a counterpose that helps to release the tension in the areas that you have stretched. Suggested counterposes are the knees to chest (apanasana) or child’s pose (balasana).
Tan Tian Hui (August 2017, 200 Hr YTT)