Give Your Back A Great (And Safe) Stretch. Here's How
As a yoga teacher, I often hear that backbends are great for your back and spine. And, like you, I have read my fair share of articles claiming these wonderful words to be true. But not all backbends are created equal: how you practice the backbend will make all the difference.
If you have had or currently have pain in your lower back, sacrum or glutes, feel like you are not warmed up enough or that you just don’t move that way, you're not alone. Countless students have come to my classes having a wide range of yoga and fitness backgrounds. When they roll out their yoga mats, most seem to say the same thing when it comes to properly guiding them into such a deep back-bending move… “why wasn’t I taught that before?”
So, what’s the deal?
Here are six tips to get your backbend in great shape:
1. Start small.
With a yoga background, many students use Sun Salutations to warm up. While that may be good for the yogi that's flexible by nature, what about the other 90% of us? Instead, warm up gently by flexing and extending your spine. Try mini cobras or dynamic pelvic tilts. Allow your lower back and sacral muscles and connective tissue to start to become aware of what is about to happen.
2. Stop squeezing your butt cheeks.
You will experience less back pain. When you squeeze your buttocks in a backbend (like bridge/wheel), you not only put more pressure on the lower back, but you also potentially disengage the abdominal muscles. And, you will lose the ability of having your inner-leg and pelvic-core do more of the work for you.
3. Keep your legs parallel.
I know, it’s easier said than done. And, for the ego, you probably will not be able to go as high, but it will save your sacrum from future issues. If you allow your legs to roll outward in a backbend, (like locust, cobra, wheel and bow) what you end up doing to your pelvis and sacrum will leave your body aching for all the wrong reasons. By keeping your legs parallel and stable (try placing a block between the legs), you allow the sacrum to cultivate stability (for women this is so valuable). This also helps shift the focus from your upper and outer glutes to the pelvic-core, lower glute and leg as well as the proper spinal muscles. This might make the stretch feel more difficult, and you may not go as high, but you'll finally be using and activating the correct muscles.
4. Lift with your core, not with your arms.
When the teacher says, “Inhale into cobra," many students fling their torsos off the floor with one press of their arms. Often students are trying for height and only using their arms which is then followed by hanging in their shoulders. This movement puts all of the stress into the lower back. Instead, for cobra, inhale while pressing your pubis bone into the floor (to lengthen the lower back). Exhale and contract your pelvic-core deeply. Roll your spine up like you are stacking blocks. Then, drop your shoulders and inhale at the top of the movement, fully inflating your lungs. Keep your elbows bent and never lock your arms.
5. Lead with your pelvis/hip socket.
Most of us are tight in our hips or lower back, or both. Since the hips and lower back share muscles, tight hips and lower back issues may be interrelated. As you open up your hips, you will ultimately open up your back too. Often times, I see that the lower body is locked up and the lower back is jammed. Instead, lead with your hips as you move into a backbend. Your body will thank you.
6. Finally, feel rather than perform.
Anyone can say that anything is good for you, but in reality, it comes down to how you do it. Backbends are wonderful as long as your focus is to preserve the integrity of the spine and not damage it. Work to keep the length of the lower spine. Imagine that the back-starting at your tail bone-is just one continuous beautiful curve. Instead of thrusting or throwing your body up into a backbend, try lifting with deep core strength. Remember holding back may train the proper muscles to do the job!
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