How to Backbend: The Safest Way to Practice Backbends like Urdvha Dhanurasana and Ustrasana (Wheel & Camel)

Backbends–Everyone loves to hate them. It’s pretty easy to see why, once you’ve tried them a few times on your own, because those puppies are HARD!  Here’s the thing, they are also very good for you to do.

I’m not talking about the crazy back bends that you see in Cirque Du Solie–that’s contortionism, not yoga.  I’m talking about the type of backbend that is found in a lot of all levels and some level 1 classes.  Even beginner’s classes include backbends, because they are so important for our overall well being. On the surface, backbends can help give you energy, they can help lift your mood, and they can give you a serious boost to the esteem if you work on them long enough and see your progress.

The biggest take away –if you read no further–is that every spine should move.  

Even the most stiff person on the planet should be working to move the spine.  Again–not to contort the spine and break things, but to move the spine, and keep it moving.  Remember, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. However, you may be a little more on the stiff side, so, the biggest advice I can give you is to work.  Yoga is a journey, right…not a destination, so if you’re new to the journey or you’ve been practicing for years and just happen to be a lttle stiffer on the back, that’s ok.  You do have hope! Here are some secrets to take with you on your journey to safe and effective backbending–specifically wheel pose.

If you don’t like to read, Here’s a video I shot recently on practicing Wheel Pose, Urdvha Dhanurasana safely.  

Secrets to safe backbends

In the video I cover 3 important things to remember when practicing your backbends.  They are:

  1. Engaged Abdominals – the Transverse Abdominals are the body’s girdle.  
  2. Tail bone lengthening down- This helps your low back have length, even in a backbend
  3. Open shoulders – this helps to deepen your backbend for the upper back and chest.

Here’s where there can be a bit of controversy…it’s the whole glute engagement thing.

Yes yes, this argument is all over the internet.

In this video on Wheel, I remind you to have your glutes engaged to help you protect the back when you’re in the pose.  This is very true.

Here’s the thing–you get them engaged when you are in the bend or pose, not necessarily on the journey into it.  

If you start out with the engagement, then the sacrum has no place to move (it only moves a little) which makes the lower back take more force.  It’s a bit of a marriage, a YOGA so to speak, on how you manage the gentle pull between engagement and relaxation. You have to be engaged enough in all your back muscles in back bends–including the glutes, that your body is protected, (plus, you gotta push up into wheel)  but if you’re squeezing that posterior so much the sacrum gets locked into place, which means you’re not going to effectively bend in the whole back.

I suggest playing with this concept in other backbends.

For example: Check out this other video I did on the Camel Pose or Ustrasana:

The biggest cues in this video were:

  1. Engage Abs – Transverse Abdominals Reign supreme at keeping us safe in backbends!
  2. Bring the heels up higher by pressing the toes into the mat
  3. Start with the hips up high–don’t go from the ground up
  4. Internally rotate your shoulders
  5. Relax the Glutes as you go into the pose!

Notice how hard it is to keep the glutes from taking over when trying to get into this pose.  Your body really REALLY wants to make the big Glute muscles work when trying to get into this pose, but if you do that, it makes the act of reaching for those heels, ankles, feet much more difficult and possibly painful.  If you leave the glutes relaxed and allow the sacrum to move (it doesn’t move much here–just tiny little tilt–but it’s enough to allow you to experience the backbend further up the spine–which is an area that really needs to get strengthened, worked, and re-ignited (since we are forever leaning forward.)
I hope these cues weren’t too contradictory, and I hope that they helped you in your journey to better back bending.  If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me anytime at Jennifer@thriveyogaandwellness.com.  I can’t wait to practice with you soon.