Backbend or heart-opener?
Attending a yoga class, you will move the body through a series of motions designed to strengthen, soften and stretch. Any type of yoga will include movements which take the spine through its natural range of motion – side bends left & right; forward fold; backbend; twist to right & left. By moving the body/the spine in this way we can hold back the hands of time and allow ourselves the opportunity to still bend down to tie our shoes well into our 80s.
With an estimated 2.5 million people each year experiencing back pain, and costing the NHS £1 billion a year, it would be great if there were some way, we could help ourselves and our spines.
But first the science bit
Our spine is a rather complex and sophisticated construction, it holds and supports the weight of our head through the cervical spine, which allows us to move our head in a variety of different ways. Moving down we come to the thoracic vertebrae, which are joined onto our rib cage providing protection for our heart and lungs. The thoracic spine has limited mobility which mainly allows us to twist to the left and right. Finally, we reach the lower back or the lumbar spine, whose main function is to support the weight of the body. Working together these 33 bones allow the brain to communicate with nerves throughout the body; to move and manipulate our limbs and provides stability when we are going about our daily lives. Keeping out spine mobile and healthy is not just a way to minimise back pain, but it also helps to prevent us loosing mobility as we age, allowing us to continue enjoying a wide array of hobbies.
Backbends help to improve our posture, by taking the spine in the opposite direction from the way we mostly operate throughout the day. If you sit at a desk or drive a lot, your upper back will probably be scrunched forwards with the shoulders rounding. Tension might even build here as you repeat this posture daily. By spending a bit of time in a backbend, like cobra, you are allowing your spine to reset, lengthen and return to its natural position.
Working with poses like bridge, allow us to articulate through the full spine, by moving slowly and mindfully. In Pilates this can take up quite a bit of the class, as you focus on trying to move each vertebrae individually. By incorporating bridge pose into your regular yoga routine, you can encourage an increase in mobility and range of motion, through this slow articulation. It’s not about how high you can lift up, it’s about how mindfully you can move through the full length of your spine. Bridge pose also offers the opportunity to work with the hip flexors – tightness here can show up in lower back pain. By lengthening the hip flexors, we can find a new and easier range of motion in the hips and the lower back.
Another way to articulate through the spinal cord is to move through cat/cow poses. This movement should be fluid and in time with the breath, taking your time. Ideally you will end the inhale as you reach the peak of your cat pose, before slowly starting to exhale as you flow into cow. This movement can be incorporated into a daily practise and will provide many benefits whether you have any back issues or not.
Advanced backbends, such as urdhva dhanurasana or wheel, provide a massive amount of benefits not just for the spine but for the whole body. By opening up the chest, shoulders and upper back we can encourage the lungs to take a deeper and fuller breath. The focus required for holding this inversion/backbend is that it provides a challenge of mind over matter, and a dedication towards moving the body consistently and carefully.
Whether you consider these poses as backbends or heart openers one thing is clear, they don’t work the spine in isolation. To enter some of these postures and find a sense of stillness and quiet can take years of practice, understanding of your unique physiology and dedication to learning how to safely work with the postures. For many people the thought of exploring backbends does feel like they would be working on the impossible – bending over backwards. But instead of feeling the fear, ask yourself how would it feel to work towards the impossible?