My Love-hate Relationship with Backbends

So yes, Backbends. Every time the teacher announces a backbend related pose in class my heart starts beating faster, my palms get sweaty, cortisol starts flooding my system and I get stressed. Although I long to form beautiful extended arches with my back, the lower back pain that follows a backbend asana which sometimes lasts a few days to a week makes me dread doing any backbend poses. The reason for this is the usual – an overly bendy lower back coupled with a stiff, inflexible thoracic spine. As much as I try not to sink into my lower back, my body often compensates for the inflexibility in the upper back by overly extending the lumbar, causing an awful pinching sensation.

With regards to not jamming the lower spine comes the debate of whether to squeeze the glutes and tuck the tailbone. I have had teachers arguing for both sides and this has left me rather confused. Previously, when I tucked my tailbone I did feel some form of relief of the pain in the lower back and hence decided that perhaps that was the way things should be. However, recently even tucking the tailbone has not helped and the lower back pain following a backbend was lasting for many more days after doing the pose. As such, I decided to do some research into what exactly was the right way to do a backbend.

The following paragraphs is a summary of an explanation of what one should do when in a backbend to prevent overextending of the lower spine which I thought was very interesting and helpful!

First, is thinking about the sacral movement in a backbend. The sacrum is located below the lumbar spine just above the coccyx. Remember the different types of movements at different joints in the body that we learnt e.g. flexion, extension, pronation, supination, rotation, etc.? The sacrum has its own special movement which is called nutation! Nutation is the tipping forward of the top of the sacrum. The sacrum’s neutral position when one is going about normal activities like sitting or walking is one of slight nutation, imagine the leaning tower of Pisa. This forward tilt supports the natural curve in the lumbar spine providing stability while allowing movement in the hips. When one tucks the tailbone down, the sacrum counternutates, meaning the top of the sacrum tips slightly backwards into a more vertical alignment. This is what happens in tadasana when we actively tuck the tailbone under.

However, when the body bends forward or backward naturally, rather than counternutating, the sacrum nutates further, tilting forward beyond its already tilted neutral alignment and the tailbone shifts slightly back. Studies show that this sacral nutation position stabilities the sacrum within the pelvic bones as opposed to counternutation, where you risk pinching the sacroiliac joints and straining the lower back.

Therefore, instead of tucking the tailbone in a backbend, it is recommended that one should engage the deep transverse abdominals instead to keep a slight nutation of the sacrum. Engaging the abdominals along with the back muscles and inner thighs prevents overnutation of the sacrum. Lastly, engagement of the mula bandha will help draw energy from the centre of the pelvic floor to lift and extend the spine, distributing the backbend evenly. Although I have yet to try and see if it works, perhaps those who also face the same problem can try it to see if this helps!

Finally, I would like to end off with something that a teacher once told me about backbends. He said imagine each vertebra in your spine like beads on a string. If the beads are very tightly packed together, the chain becomes very immobile. However, if you loosen the knot at the end of the chain and let the beads have some space in between while maintaining contact with adjacent beads, the chain becomes much more flexible and the chain can move more freely. The same goes for backbends! So imagine yourself creating space between each vertebra, like the loosening of the beads on a chain and keep thinking of lifting your chest towards the ceiling rather than arching back and down. Perhaps this visualisation when doing your backbends might help in better distribution of the arch throughout your spine as well. Let’s all be bendy and create beautiful pain-free arches together!