Anatomy of Backbends in Yoga: Understanding Heart Openers
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
anatomy of backbends in yoga
Backbends are a core component of any yoga class. Moving the spine in different directions helps release tension and improve flexibility. Particularly with our modern lifestyle, where we spend most of the day hunched over our desks in front of a computer, backbends are an essential component of any yoga practitioner’s routine to remove this tension and restore spinal flexibility.
Backbends are considered an energizing yoga pose as they open the heart and stimulate a deep inner release. Everybody loves a good backbend, as there is nothing more relieving than that blissful opening of the spine, letting go of all the tension from your day. But what exactly do they do to your body, and why are they so beneficial? We will explore that and more in this article today! Let’s dive in.
Backbends are the process of putting your spine into a position called extension. As you move your body into a backbend, one of the most common pitfalls is to hinge in your joints and add compression into the vertebrae of your spine. The vertebrae in your spine are crucial in any backbend, and moving mindfully through this process can help protect each component and prevent injury.
There are three main regions of the spine known as the cervical spine, thoracic spine, and lumbar spine. Depending on the type of backbend, you may stretch one part of the spine more than another. The pelvis is also a core region involved in backbends as it stabilizes the spine to allow movement.
The next crucial component in the anatomy of a backbend is the muscles involved in the process. To achieve a deep backbend, you need a combination of both strength and flexibility. The strength in your muscles helps to stabilize your body in the backbend and protect your spine. At the same time, the flexibility in your muscles enables you to get a deeper stretch.
In a prone backbend, in which you are facing downwards on the mat, you are primarily using your back extensor muscles that help you push against gravity as you move upward. In contrast, in a supine backbend, your hip extensors and erector spinae muscles are the central regions in control. See below for a brief exploration of the three main muscles involved in backbends in yoga:
1. Erector Spinae Muscles
These muscles help to extend your spine. The erector spinae muscles are further split into three muscle pairs called the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis that run along the sides of the spine. When you contract these muscles, they support your spine to remain upright.
2. Trapezius Muscle
The trapezius runs behind your shoulder blades down to the base of your spine. This muscle helps to broaden and open your upper back. In a yoga pose, this muscle helps draw your shoulder blades downwards and narrow the back of the chest so that the front of your chest can open more deeply.
3. Hip Extensors
The hip joint in many backbends must move back to support the extension of the spine. As this muscle stretches, it allows the spine to curve, and then the muscles further up in the back can take over to increase the movement up the spine.
Understanding the bones and muscles involved in backbends is an excellent foundation for any budding yoga teacher. Still, it is vital to put this information into practice to support your body in each pose.
1. Bend Through the Upper Back
Each region of the spine has a different level of flexibility, with the lumbar spine having the least amount. Unfortunately, many people focus on bending through the lumbar spine in backbends, which actually limits mobility and can lead to injury. A better option is to focus on bending through the thoracic spine and avoid hinging in your vertebral joints. Focus on extending through the thoracic spine in the upper back and then moving into your desired backbend position.
2. Stabilize Your Pelvis
The pelvis is the base of the spine, and it is essential to ensure this region is strong to support your body in any backbend. Before moving into a backbend, make sure to shift your hips forward to engage your hip extensor muscles and tilt your pelvis to support the spinal movement backward as you go into your favorite backbend. Make sure to engage through your feet with pada bandha or foot lock and engage your inner thighs to support your spine and pelvis.
3. Focus on Strength
Many people start their exploration of backbends with an over-focus on flexibility. While, of course, flexibility is essential in backbends, we cannot neglect the importance of strength to protect and stabilize the spine. Engaging your bandhas or locks, particularly the mula bandha or root lock, is vital to building strength and engagement in the muscles that support your spine.
One of the most controversial backbend suggestions is whether or not to engage your glutes in a backbend. Some yoga teachers say that engaging your glutes helps protect your lumbar spine and avoids hinging in these joints. However, others say that engaging your glutes can actually add more load to the spine and increase the potential for injury. At the end of the day, the best judgment for whether or not to engage your glutes comes from your own experience. Try one of your favorite backbends with and without engaging your glutes to see the difference in your own body, and then make your decision from there!
Learning the specifics of yoga anatomy and the terminology is undoubtedly useful, but your best teacher of yoga anatomy is your own body. By using the tools of body scan meditation and mindful awareness, you can use every yoga pose as an opportunity to explore your anatomy and learn more about your body. As you engage in various backbend positions, try to close your eyes and focus on the movement of each part of your body, noticing the parts that feel sensations and how you can engage different muscles to change these sensations. This subtle exploration of your body is truly your best teacher.
1. Cat and Cow Pose (Bitilasana and Marjariasana)
Cat and cow pose is an excellent back bending posture that involves movement of all regions of the spine. This is a great pose to explore the three main components of the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spinal regions. Remember not to put too much pressure on your lumbar spine in this pose and try to engage your thoracic spine instead.
2. Sphinx Pose (Bhujangasana)
Sphinx pose is a gentle backbend that focuses exclusively on the thoracic spine. To engage more deeply in this pose, a common recommendation is to strengthen through the core and drop your pelvis downward to extend through your upper back. This small movement stabilizes your pelvis to allow for a deeper extension further up your spine.
3. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)
Bridge pose is a supine backbend yoga pose that is great for beginner yoga students exploring backbends. One of the most common issues in this yoga pose is an increase in pressure in the lumbar spine. You can help protect this region by placing a block between your thighs to engage your hip abductors and stabilize your pelvis.
4. Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Camel pose is another pose that people tend to bend through their lumbar spine, but they really should focus more on the thoracic spine instead. To support this movement, camel pose requires first shifting your hips forward to stabilize your pelvis and activate your hip extensors, and then once your lower spine has been stabilized, you can lean back through your upper back and get a deep stretch through your thoracic spine.
5. Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
Fish pose is an excellent yoga pose to deepen through the thoracic spine and understand the different regions of the spine. Since this is a supine backbend, the position of this yoga pose naturally helps you stabilize the pelvis and bend through the upper back. Make sure to tilt your pelvis gently forward, stabilize your lumbar spine, and then bend through the thoracic spine to avoid hinging in your joints. Also, avoid the temptation to bend deeply through the cervical spine, as this can put undue pressure on your neck.
Backbends are a core part of yoga classes. When we move the spine in different directions, we release the central region of tension in the body and support the entire system. The spine holds up the whole body, so this is often the first area to accumulate stress. Therefore, it needs the most support to release.
If you are interested in learning more about yoga and how to support your body and your students in backbends in a yoga class, then make sure to check out our online yoga teacher training courses. In our online 200hr and 300hr yoga teacher training courses, we give you all the tools you need to support your students through nourishing backbends and a full release of the spine. Reach out to us for more information on how you can join our upcoming yoga teacher training course!