Aerial Back Bends Workshop: Overview
We've all seen it, the picture of the famous yoga goddess on an exotic beach, bent backwards grabbing their ankles. Their spines in the perfect arch that shows a combination of flexibility, strength, and grace! As we sit over our computer desks, hunched, back aching, we think--- "I should REALLY start doing yoga."
As a yoga teacher, I have always been hesitant about putting a lot of focus on teaching backbends to my students. Why? Because we spend YEARS developing incorrect posture that tightens the front of the body and weakens the back of the body. Correcting this posture and developing a strong core and flexibility will also take YEARS! However, ego often takes the center stage and students (myself included!) put themselves in danger as they try to achieve an instagram worthy backbend. Of course, backbends are a necessary part of any yoga practice and are very healthy for you, especially if they are practiced correctly! Let's break down a few things that we learned in our most recent workshop!
#1. The goal of backbends.
Did you know that the goal of the backbend is less about spinal flexibility and more about anterior body flexibility (front side of your body)? A good backbend stretches the front side of your body from the ankles all the way to the throat. If you take my classes you'll often hear me call ‘back bends' chest openers! A well-executed backbend will maintain the same arc throughout the body. There shouldn't be any part of your backbend that has a sharp angle! If you do find a sharp angle in your back bend it means that you are putting a great deal of pressure on one party of the body, instead of spreading it out across your body, and this is a big NO NO!
#2. Pain is NOT gain in backbends.
So, you are practicing on your own without a mirror, how do you know that your back bend has a sharp angle? The number one indicator that your alignment is off is that you feel uneasy! No pain no gain, right? WRONG! If your back is hurting (or uncomfortable!), it is your body telling you to back off. Your breath should be calm in your backbend, there should be no pain. That might mean that your backbend does not look quite how you want it to. Remember that a huge principle of yoga is to let go of attachments. The ego can be a big part of your practice, especially when we start to care about how we look. An insta-perfect picture is less than important when you start working on a backbend practice. A good backbend practice comes from a lot of strength in the back side of your body, think hamstrings, glutes, and spinal extensors. All of these muscles must work to stabilize your spine while you stretch your quads, hip flexors, abdominals, chest, and throat.
#3. Understand your spine.
The spine is one of the most important structures of your body, we must learn to respect and care for the spine if we want to live with ease! The spine can be broken down into 5 main parts: Cervical (from the bottom of the head to the bottom of the neck), Thoracic (from the bottom of the neck to the bottom of the rib cage), Lumbar (bottom of the rib cage to the top of the butt), Sacrum (boney part of the butt that connects the spine to the pelvis), Coccyx or tailbone (supports the bottom of the pelvis).
Our most flexible parts of the spine tend to be the parts that get overused as we approach our backbend practice and lead to injuries and pain! How does this happen?
The cervical spine is one of the most flexible parts of the spine. Over the years I've noticed that many students get into a backbends and throw their heads as far back as it can go, giving them the feeling "I'm doing it!" This action actually crunches the back of the neck and puts pressure on the upper part of the throat; which coincidentally makes this a very uncomfortable position to be in. Instead, think of the front AND back parts of the neck as being long. You'll have a small arc of the cervical spine as you reach through the crown of the head. It should seem like you are taking a small tuck of the chin—although the chin WILL NOT actually be tucked. That small tucking motion helps give added length to the upper back side of the neck.
Another part of the spine that tends to take a beating in your backbends practice is the lumbar spine. Consider a pose like bridge or wheel. Students push into their feet and lift their hips as high as they can go. They often go so high that they start to pinch the lower parts of the lumbar spine, you'll notice that this is happening because it creates the 'angular' look and is accompanied by a sensation of pinching or dis-ease in the lower back. The goal is the lower the hips down until that pinching sensation is gone, and you are able to hold the position with for at least 4-5 rounds of strong breath.
#4. It’s a full body practice, so you must do a full body warm up!
If you're a regular yoga studio practitioner, you've probably noticed that most deep backbends are saved for the later parts of the class. This is because your backbend is a full body pose! It requires a great deal of strength and flexibility. For my friends that want to bring their practice home with them, here are a few suggestions:
Stretch your spine in all different directions. It opens front and back (think cat and cow pose). It opens to the side (think half moon or banana shape). It twists (think a seated twist or lay on the floor with the knees going in one direction and your top arm opening in the other direction so your chest is opened).
Loosen up the joints in your spine, think gentle head rolls, thoracic rolls (like you are trying to hula hoop from your rib cage, it’s quite challenging), and some sexy lumbar spine rolls!
Warm up the legs and give them a nice stretch. Maybe some lunges, pigeon pose, runners stretch for the hamstrings.
Build some heat! You never want to dive into a big backbend on a cold body. Do some conditioning exercises that strengthen the core and hamstrings. Vinyasas are a great way to get that fire built up.
Keep taking studio classes! Absorb what you can from your teachers that are trained in yoga and body movements. Ask them questions and have them look at your form and give you feedback. The best thing you can do for yourself is to learn as much as you can and then listen to the suggestions of your own body from a place of knowledge and understanding.