Yoga Fundamentals: Backbends for the Hypermobile

By Jennifer Dixon MBA  ERYT 500 – In today’s Yoga Fundamentals post, I thought I would talk about backbends.  These are a series of postures from the very basic to very advanced that open up the muscles in the front body while strengthening the muscles in the back body.  Backbends are usually detested by folks that need them, and then they are jumped into eagerly by the folks (like me) that are hypermobile…which can lead to some pain.  In later posts, I will talk about backbending for the folks that aren’t hypermobile, but today, I want to address the folks like me, who can whip right into a Dhanuarasana and tell jokes or whatever, like it’s no big deal.  Don’t worry, if you struggle with backbends, the information shared here today will help you stay safe as well.

Many years ago, when I first started yoga, I felt like I HAD to learn how to do everything, Drop Backs, Hand Stands, binds..you name it.  I somehow lucked out and had amazing teachers come into my life, all of which were MUCH more seasoned than me in life, and all of them FORCED me to slow down.  When I capitalize that, I mean it.

OH MY GOSH, let me tell you how frustrating that was!

Now, here I am, 10 years later (almost) and having to re-learn how to do things postpartum and with the unfortunate battle against time, and I’m hearing those lessons in my head during my personal practices.  (I wish my old teacher, Donna, were still alive today. I know she’d love it when I called her and said, you were right all along….) Being taught the more complex postures was something I desperately wanted, but it was the fundamentals that were always offered to me, which, in a very Mr. Miagi sort of way, helped me to get the more advanced pose.

Drop backs were one of those “advanced” poses I wanted to learn.  It’s basically where you go from standing and then, with control, “drop” your hands, head, and body backwards into a backbend.  Pre-pregnancy, my backbends were, what I thought, AWESOME. I could touch my heels, grabbing my ankles. I was like, dude, this is AWESOME!  (can you talk about ego right there?) I was practicing with my teacher in a group environment, going for the ankles in my backbend when she stopped the class, brought me out of the pose, and asked if I had my bandhas engaged.  (bandhas are energetic locks in the body, in this case, think the belly button to spine transverse abdominal engagement you hear when in a weight lifting class.)

Of course, I was like, sure ya, it was in.  She said, “really?” I was made to lay back down, lengthen through the tail bone, suck in the belly, and then told to come back into my backbend. WHOA NELLY.  Sure, I could do the backbend, but suddenly those heels seemed like a mile away. Doing the pose correctly basically meant that I couldn’t do what I thought I could do.  Meaning, when the abdominals were engaged to protect the spine, the lowback couldn’t hyper bend, forcing the upper back (which is what’s supposed to be focused on here) to open, and my upper back wasn’t open enough….so here I was back to the very basic back bend.  

Oh man, talk about a slap in the face of the ego right there.

Here’s the thing, backing out of the pose, engaging the appropriate muscles, and then going again actually felt better.  The backbends (which would usually end up hurting me –remember, i still have that pesky herniated disc), something I was super proud of, weren’t being practiced properly so that meant I was putting myself at risk of injury.  

All you hyper-mobile, naturally flexible people listen up here, natural mobility is great, but it also can lead to you unwittingly putting too much pressure on joints, which can lead to injury.  

In this case, it was an injury to my low back.

Have you ever done a backbend and, instead of feeling a nice stretch across the front of your body, you immediately felt pain in your low back?  

I’m raising my hands right here.  You can too if you want.

Now, I’m not right there with you, and I don’t know each of you, BUT…If i could venture to guess, I would say that the low back was doing all the bending, and the upper back wasn’t, which put too much pressure in an already stressed area and viola, pain.

Now, let’s go back to my story about the backbend and the bandha.  (that could be a cute child’s book….:))

My teacher made me come out of the backbend, basically assume a “crunch” position.  Actually, she made me do some boat poses (ab work), and then when laying on my back, engage the same muscles that hold the body and legs up in boat, and then try to go for the backbend.  

When the low back was protected by the super strong abdominal muscles, it didn’t do all the bending, the chest had to open up (which is what you want here), the upper back muscles were stretched, and suddenly the backbend didn’t go as deep, but it also didn’t hurt.

This same abdominal activation is necessary in every single backbend. Whether you’re doing locust pose, or wheel, the abdominal muscles MUST be engaged to protect the low back.  

Checkout this video to see what I’m talking about. 

Now, once you have seen the belly activation, why don’t you give it a try?  What did you think?

Ok, so since this pose was about drop backs, did I ever get them?  Yes. It took me a loooong loong time to get them without hurting my back.  Even though I had the tools to keep the low back protected, my ego got in the way several times and had me going for this pose without the necessary engagement (which of course led to pain in my back).  Now, several years later, I’m confident in my ability to do the dropbacks without collapsing in my low back. It’s still much easier to just “let it all hang out” in the belly department and go for the backbend, but I immediately feel it.  Learning to be present, listen, practice, balance the tug between engagement and relaxation….it’s all part of a regular yoga practice. If you’re in the Chattanooga area, I invite you to come and practice with us here at Thrive Yoga and Wellness.  If you are not in the area, we have a growing online resource available at our Youtube Channel (free), or if you’d like more access to training, we have the Mommy Bounceback Program available and growing, which gives you direct access to me, over 3 hours of challenging yoga sequences, and coming soon, a community of folks working together through yoga, to become stronger, more flexible, and more PRESENT with ourselves, our loved ones, and our community.  Come check it out!