The word “back bend” is misleading in yoga. I only discovered what it really refers to (while still in the process of discovering new things everyday) recently. I have posted about back bends before but I would like to update about my (small) progress.
In the most literal form, back bending refers to the extension of the lumbar spine -how much the BONES of your lower back bends backwards. This is determined by the amount of space between the spinous process of your vertebrates which means it is fixed and you cannot change the amount of back bend you have. It is in-born. Perhaps affected by lifestyle changes during puberty, but for adults, this is fixed. Sure, perhaps tension in the muscles of fascia around your front body is preventing you from your full potential of lumbar extension, but once that’s all loosened up, you are limited by your spinous process. End of story.
Those who have naturally a lot of space in their lumbar to bend backwards – good for you! Back bend poses may seem easy and you seemingly can reach the final expression of many poses, but do be warned that when your other areas are tight, a lot of pressure will go to the lumbar. And when your lumbar is like this, you may go all out and as a result incur lower back injuries. This is very common. Be mindful.
In yoga, when we “work on back bends”, we do not actually work on the lumbar area. What we do is to open up the chest, so that your shoulder blades can come together. We also work on shoulder flexion, which means to open your shoulders more backwards when you raise your arms up. We also work on the thighs – we need open quads and hip flexors as well as strength to support the whole structure. In contrast, the lumbar extension plays just a small role in the process of creating back bends.
And of course, body proportion plays a part. People with shorter torso and longer arms and legs will find back bends easier in poses where they have to reach their toes! I have the opposite which makes everything extra hard, but I’m still trying. Just think about it – someone with the favourable proportions may have already achieved the final expression of the same pose with my extent of flexibility and strenght, while I’m still trying to reach because my journey is further. So, there’s no comparing. Just because someone has reached their foot doesn’t mean they’re doing more back bends! It’s just like comparing someone whose distance to run is 1km while mine is 2km. We could put in the same effort but she will reach the finish line earlier just because we have a different journey, not because I’m inadequate. Our different bodies gives us different journeys to take so there’s no grounds for comparison.
Lunging with back bends has been something I hated with a passion throughout my yoga journey but 5 months ago, I decided to stop hating and I opened myself (pun!) to it and discovered how to go about attempting this. So much have changed in this 5 months as compared to the past 4 years of practice.
Anatomy wise, those who have a lot of lumbar extension will definitely reach down easier than others. Also, for those with longer legs and arms, they’ll definitely reach closer than me.
For others, you need to work on your pelvic. Naturally the pelvic will face towards the front thigh, so to go back, you need to go back from the pelvic, not just from the lower back. To tilt the pelvic backwards, it is stretching that psoas to peel your hip flexors away from the front thigh. In this process, you will feel your glutes being squeezed together. I’m thinking if I had less flesh on my butt maybe I’ll have more room to tilt my pelvic.
In a normal low lunge I can sink down a lot because my quads are loose, but for this one I need to come out higher to have more room to tilt my pelvic. Still, the quads needs to be loose so it doesn’t hold you back.
Chest and shoulders
To reach down, open shoulders and chest are important or else the arms will just stay high up.
Sadly I haven’t progressed much in this one. The full pose would have the entire front thigh glued to to floor as well as the pelvic. My pelvic is slightly lifted up for me to reach with my arms supported on my finger tips. If you can, full palms on the floor and pelvic glued down! For this to be possible, you need to have loose psoas, strong thighs and an open chest.
I first managed to get my toes to my head around 20 months ago and there hasn’t been much progress. Comparing to 11 months ago, it does seem that my pelvic is a little lower now, just a little! But a little bit of progress is better than none.
My body proportion is not helping since my arms are shorter than my torso! Those with short torso and longer arms (and legs) proportionately will definitely get there more easily.
This was one of the poses I never thought was possible but for me, but one day it happened. Not going to fake it – this day happened very slowly. It was almost 4 years of yoga before somewhat getting there. As you can tell by now, my lumbar extension (bend) is naturally not a lot. I have to depend on my shoulders, chest and legs to get me there and it doesn’t help that my arms are proportionately shorter! My journey for this pose is a way longer one than most people who actually do it.
So my very first time in a king dancer pose 5 months ago, I had to use a wall for support because balancing required concentration too, and I had too many areas to focus on. I thought it wasn’t going to happen on it’s own without wall support, until I learnt the technique from Kahtryn Budig during a weekend immersion in Sydney! I’m still very amazed at how much I’ve learnt from her within a weekend.
Now, it’s still not effortless. I need to warm up in order to get here with other back bends and lunges. But at least I can stand stably without support once I get into the pose, and I don’t feel like something is breaking while I’m at it!
Shoulders and chest
2 points to focus on – flexion of shoulder and flipping the grip. It took very long to get my shoulders this open and even longer to grasp that shoulder rotation to flip the grip. Once I’ve flipped the grip by rotating that shoulder, holding wasn’t that tough. Also important is the openness of shoulders to hold and breathe in this pose. Puffing out the chest helps a lot too, to bring back the shoulders creating space.
My version of this pose based on my anatomy requires me having a lot of shoulder flexion. You can see that my arms are brought back a lot. For others who have longer arms, you don’t need such a large extent of shoulder flexion so your upper arm may stay upright rather than being brought back like mine. Lucky you.
Quads and hip flexor
Strength and flexibility in the thighs is needed for this one. You need the leg to stay up using it’s own strength. Once the leg can hold itself high, grabbing becomes much easier. To get the leg up higher, it’s the psoas, quads and hip flexor that needs to be flexible. These few months, I’ve been working on that psoas and hip flexor thing with my low lunges so I’d say working on the lunge will indirectly work towards this pose.
I have made slight progress with my elbows being almost on the mat now! When I first managed to get into this pose some 6 months ago, I experienced lower back pain for the new few days because I probably did not have the strength to perform it safely. I stayed off this pose for months while I’ve been working on strengthening my legs while opening my psoas. My improvement in this pose lies in the part where it did not strain me this time!
Next I have to see if my fingers can find my heels. The progress in this pose compared to when I last did it months ago was how I felt in it. This time, I felt more control on my legs and more openness in the shoulders and chest, and less pressure on my lower back. The last time I really gave everything to my lower back and I felt the ache for many days!
For this pose, it is important to have very strong legs. You want your legs to stay almost perpendicular to the floor, and not just collapse down. Of course with thighs this direction, you need to make sure your hip flexors and psoas are flexible enough. A good indicator of whether your thighs are ready for this pose – if you can come back up the way you came down you are ready. If you have to collapse each time, perhaps you need more work on your legs so as not to incur strain in this pose.
Chest and shoulders
Having this part open is the requirement to get the elbows down on the mat. Again, if my arms were longer it would be much easier but I’ll work on what I have.
This is something I just tried for fun today. My foot looks pretty close to my head! I’ll keep trying.
Top: Lululemon Minimalist Bra, Black
Bottom: Lululemon High Times Pants *SE Dance to Yoga, Pretty Plume