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Backbends: Cues, Anatomy, and Visualizations

by Marianne Navada
backbend assist

Verbal cues have the power to change your yoga practice and if you’re a teacher, your class. We divided these cues into three categories: foundation, anatomy, visualization, with tips for opening a yoga class to familiarize students with backbend anatomy. We gathered knowledge from books, from yoga teachers who have guided us through years of yoga practice, both online and in person. 

Foundation

  • Think of backbends as heart openers. You’re not bending you back. You’re opening the front body.
  • Although in deep backbends the lower back curves, we initiate backbends from the upper body or the middle-upper part of the spine. For women, think about where the bra line is. That’s where we initiate the bend.
  • Back-bending requires open and strong shoulders. As the shoulders get stronger and more open, they allow us to push higher so we can lift and open the front body even more. When we open the tight parts of the body using our strength, we improve flexibility while getting stronger.
  • Backbends are invigorating. And they should never hurt, especially the lower back. Your heart rate might go up. It can feel like a struggle. However, that’s normal, since we’re opening tight spots of the body. But you shouldn’t feel compression. In fact, it should open up space.
  • Backbends energize us and release stored emotions. We hear stories of practitioners feeling intense release and even crying after a deep backbend. It is theorized that we store lots of emotions in our chest, whether it’s fear, doubt, or frustration. Back-bending releases these feelings. Hence, this explains the lightness and invigoration we feel after backbends.
  • Exhale and empty out the air, and let your inhale lift up your chest.

Foundation: The Checklist

  • Are you hunching the shoulders? Relax the shoulders by dropping them away from the ears. The shoulder blades reach downwards.
  • Are you using the neck to depend the backbend? Lead the backbend with the heart center. Don’t lead your backbend with the neck by dropping the neck back. Keep the neck long and lead with the sternum and the heart. For example, in poses such as upward facing dog, you can keep the head straight in line with the spine and slightly tuck the chin with the gaze directly forward. 
  • Are you lifting your heels in wheel pose? In wheel pose, there’s a tendency to lift the heels to get more height and space. Some do this either for aesthetic or to correct misalignment. Lifting the heels might relieve some lower back pain, but it doesn’t address the issue. To build strength and focus on alignment when learning, you can use a block. Take a block, place it in between the thighs and squeeze as you initiate the pose. This keeps the knees from sprawling out and dumping the weight on the lower back. It may be harder to lift up to wheel in this pose, but it forces you to correct alignment and use the right muscles.
  • Are you breathing? If you find ourself panicking in a backbend, it might signal pain or discomfort, or that you’re going deeper than you should.

Anatomy 

  • When we talk about the heart center, we usually refer to the sternum or the breastbone. The sternum protects the heart and lungs, and acts as a connection point for your clavicle and ribs. 
  • The spine has a memory of its own independent of our brains and can learn. This is why it can be a challenge to correct bad posture. On the other hand, this means we can retrain the spine so we can always improve our posture.
  • The shoulder consist of the arm bone (humerus), scapula (shoulder blade) and clavicle. Backbends strengthen our shoulders.
  • Backbends work the pectoral muscles. These muscles allow us to move our humerus or upper arm bone. 
  • The spine has 5 parts the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccyx. When back-bending, think of opening from the thoracic spine.  

Why anatomy? Understanding how the body works and all that it does not only gets us deeper into a pose, but it also fosters appreciation. There are many ways to incorporate anatomy words and lessons into a class.

You certainly don’t want to overwhelm, so use wisely. For example, one method we find useful, is having people touch the body part you’re referring to (if possible), especially during the beginning part of the yoga class. Here are examples.

Introducing Anatomy Words in the Beginning of Class

Gentle neck stretch to highlight the clavicle

Take your left hand and place the fingers on your right clavicle. Stretch the right side of the neck by pointing the top of the head to your left. At the same time, gently trace the clavicle until you reach the shoulder head. Repeat on the other side.

Arm stretch to highlight the pectoral muscles and sternum

Extend the right arm out, palm facing forward, arms straight. Move the left hand and massage the pectoral muscles. Gently move the straight arm front and back, up and down. We use the “pecs” every time we move our arms so it’s important to release tension and strengthen them. You can also have students run their hand gently on the sternum. 

Neck and shoulder stretch to highlight the trapezius muscles

Take the left hand and place it on the right trapezius muscles. Gently press down as you rotate the shoulders forward and back giving yourself a gentle massage. Next, lift the shoulders up, and down to compress and release. Repeat on the other side. 

Blocks and the thoracic spine

Take two blocks. Sit on the mat, feet flat on the ground and knees bent. The knees can be as wide as you need. Place one block underneath your thoracic spine and one to support the head. For the ladies, the thoracic spine is the space where the bra-line is. Your block has three heights. The higher the block, the more intense the backbend, so maybe start with the middle height and adjust if necessary. Find a height that will allow you to stay in the pose for a minute. As one block opens the chest, the other supports the head.

Visualization and Symbols

Visualize a bright light shining right from your sternum or breastbone, the flat bone that sits on the front at the chest. 

Imagine a string tied to your chest and someone is pulling it forward (for camel or upward facing dog, pigeon), or up (for wheel). 

Metaphorically, back-bending makes us vulnerable to the world, as we open ourselves up. We don’t shrug our shoulders or tighten into a ball in a backbend. When we open ourselves we also welcome possibilities. The pose represents fearlessness of whatever may come our way.

We want you to be happy, smart, and healthy.