Editor’s Note: We lovingly assume zero liability for the choices you make on or off the mat. Be kind to your body!
Everyone experiences back-bends differently.
There are “tight” students who have been working on the same inch of locust pose for years, “flexible” students who easily shape-shift from backbend to backbend, and “neutral” students whose hips, spine and shoulders vary in strength and openness, making backbends pleasant in some instances and uncomfortable in others.
The truth is, most of us probably fluctuate between all of these types of students over the course of one yoga practice. Most of us have probably experienced backbends in their most healing instances (which are simply the moments when back bends–even restorative backbends!—feel really, really good), and we’ve probably experienced backbends in their most useless instances—the moments where we feel pain.
While there’s no cure-all statement that fixes the painful backbend hiccups we’ve each faced in our practice, there are methods of practicing that are universal for all types of students, that yield wondrous, pain-free backbends, and they don’t require massive flexibility or incredible strength.
They simply require the right mindset.
Besides learning from my own back-bend practice, I am continually amazed by my students’ practice and their ever-evolving, ever-fluctuating relationships with these open-up-wide, guts-spilled-open yoga poses. I’m amazed that backbends provoke such spirited reactions in us, and by the unique levels at which our bodies and minds accept or resist them. They are a slippery fish, jumping away from me just when I think I’ve pinned them down, and this is why they are endlessly fascinating.
This guide stems from what I’ve learned, as both as a yoga student and teacher, about pain-free backbends. This includes no anatomy, sequence strategy or analysis of common tendencies, because (ideally) all of those variables change from body to body. This is simply a way to approach backbends.
Take what works, and leave the rest.
1) Consider your history
Take a moment to consider your history with backbends.
Where have you practiced backbends? How often? In what environment? With a teacher? Did their guidance make sense? Were you able to translate it to your body experience? What are your general feelings towards backbends? Do those feelings affect how you practice?
After considering these questions, you may be able to see your body’s “successes” and “limitations” with a little more clarity, and it may become clear what aspects of your training are effective and which parts aren’t.
As Steve Jobs said, “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”
For instance, maybe you’re experiencing confusion by practicing in a group setting when you might experience more understanding from practicing alone. Maybe you aren’t practicing with the right teacher, or the teacher is great, but the style moves so quickly that you don’t have time to feel your backbends before you’re on to the next sequence. Maybe you’re working at the wrong level—perhaps you’re down-leveling your backbends when you would benefit from exploring deeper variations, or maybe you’ve been diving into deep poses when you actually might get more from simpler poses. Maybe you need a slower warm-up, or a longer one, or a more targeted one.
Whatever the case, a little reflection on where you’ve been will help illuminate the direction of where you’re going. It will help you steer clear from mistakes you’ve already made, and help you recognize what’s been efficient, so you can direct your attention towards safety (aka: feeling good, relaxation, acceptance, surrender) and growth (aka: challenge, strength, empowerment).
2) Understanding your experience
You know your body best.
I say this because it’s true, and you have to understand this if you want to become an empowered mover. A teacher can offer insight from her studies and suggestions based on her own experience, but you have something far more valuable: your experience.
A teacher can understand your experience only through the prism of his own perspective, which is riddled with his own movement history, his thoughts, sensations and perceptions. Meanwhile, you have your own thoughts, sensations and perceptions, which are personal to you, and cannot be shared with anyone. Not even your yoga teacher.
This is why the smartest person regarding your body is always you, because you are the one experiencing it moment to moment. Therefor, the key to pain-free backbends is not to perfectly embody the directions from a teacher, but to develop the ability to consult with your experience as it’s happening.
(Don’t get me wrong—there’s definitely a learning curve. You need to have some understanding of the proper mechanics of back-bending, which can be picked up from studio classes, online classes, or Google. You can study with thousands of teachers in person and online, and develop niche areas of interest. You can know as much about back-bending as your yoga teacher without spending a dime on teacher training. This is how available the information is.)
The first step to understanding your experience is to notice where you’re looking from. This may seem esoteric, but it’s extremely valuable to know when you’re looking at your experience through the prism of your ego, which is designed to judge, evaluate and expect things to go a certain way. The ego is interested in getting things done quickly, glamorously, and ostentatiously.
On the other hand, you’re also able to observe your experience from the seat of consciousness, which has no agenda and does not evaluate movement based on likes or dislikes. Consciousness is clean observation, free from interpretation, opinion or expectation. As Krishamurti said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” Consciousness is not interested in how fast or far we go in backbends, it is simply interested in noticing life as it happens.
So what now?
The first step in observing backbends with quiet, clean consciousness is to develop the interest. Once there’s interest, your attention will naturally fall out of the ego-driven molds of trying to achieve something, and you’ll be content to simply be where you are. This is where backbends become magical, where you’ll find yourself in the state of being, not in the state of trying.
An example from my own practice, I used to be able to force my body into most shapes that were offered in yoga classes. While the poses looked appropriate to the outsider, internally I experienced a lot of mental participation and body pain from misalignment. This happened frequently in backbends, where the arms and legs act as levers, transferring a considerable amount of force to the spine, and making it possible to generate big, flashy movements.
But when I started practicing alone, I found that I no longer wanted to move in ways that created pain (whereas in a group setting, pain was easy to push through so other people could see my awesome-looking poses). No longer approaching my back-bends from the ego, I significantly slowed down my practice, offering myself full minutes in camel-pose prep, just so I could feel the foundational requirements of the legs and pelvis.
Moving into the backbend became a slow affair as well. When I finally approached the backbend portion of camel pose, one inch of spinal extension required more pause, more observation, more meditation. Whereas in a group class (and ego driven), I might immediately bend over and grab for my heels the moment after camel pose is called out, during my self-practice, I might stay in the pose three minutes and only grab for the heels halfway through the pose. Working in this way has allowed me to move into ridiculously good-feeling, crazy deep backbends, all from the seat of consciousness.
Take a moment to consider your own experience.
Do you understand how your body works in backbends? Do you often approach your backbends through the lens of your ego? How and when do you decide to “go deeper”? How do you decide to exit the pose?
3) Accepting pain
When you start to observe and understand your experience from the seat of consciousness, you implicitly agree to feel your pain.
This is a little frightening, because in life, we avoid our pain whenever possible by pretending it doesn’t exist. We mute it with objects, medication, or diversion.
In yoga, however, we courageously learn to accept our pain as a means of purification. We start to understand that pain is merely information, valuable information, because it alerts us of misalignment.
Pain is actually the best teacher we have, if we allow ourselves to observe our pain from the seat of consciousness rather than the ego. The ego doesn’t like pain, especially chronic or habitual pain. The ego will often over-power the painful sensation with loud stories, opinions and blame, making it difficult to understand the actual messaging of the discomfort.
For example, I’ve experienced habitual low-back pain, which for years I attributed to over-compression of my low back during backbends. Anytime I felt this pain, my ego numbed the sensation by shouting off a list of interpretations about why I felt the pain and how to fix it. For years, I regarded these ego meanderings as useful, obediently “tucking my tail” in lunges, backbends, and any other time my ego diagnosed my pain as “low back compression.”
Then, this past summer, I started noticing the pain again, this time in a completely different setting, bending down to pick up Frisbees in the park. It was so surprising that even my know-it-all ego was out of answers. Day after day, I went to the park, threw Frisbees, and observed this strange low-back pain bending forward that I had always attributed to bending backward.
As I started experimenting with picking up the Frisbees in different ways, slowly the pain revealed itself as lower-back inflammation generated by initiating my forward folds with my lower back. As I repositioned my fold to start with my hip flexors, the pain gradually softened and went away, returning only when I candy-caned my spine to pick up a Frisbee.
Pain is an unpopular teacher, but it is the best teacher we have. It shows up faithfully and consistently, offering us a maze of possibilities. If we’re interested, we can joyfully run through the maze, bump into its dead ends, tumble through its long corridors and reroute ourselves through the same passageways like a hamster on a wheel.
Eventually, we’ll find our way out.
Take a moment to consider your relationship to pain.
Have you ever witnessed pain disappear? If so, how did that happen? Is your pain attached to stories, judgments or interpretations? Are you afraid of pain?
Are you ready to explore back-bends on your own?
Here are two classes I filmed, exploring “beginner” and “intermediate” backbends. Use these (if you’re interested) to brush up on your body mechanics, see how your body matches to the sequence, and explore some poses you might not otherwise do on your own.
Check them out! And as always, take what makes sense and leave the rest.
More yoga wisdom from Brentan:
Author: Brentan Schellenbach
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Lisa Picard at Flickr