The secrets to pain-free backbends

Posted on March 5, 2024


Do you have memories of being able to bend over backwards as a kid? I remember it being easy and intuitive back then, but fast forward to today and now they’re a bit creaky, hard work to breathe through and some can be painful too. From cow and locust through up-dog and cobra to camel, wheel and pigeon, backbends are some of the most rejuvenating and recharging moves you can make on a mat – helping reverse crunched postures, hydrating and nourishing the spine, improving lower back pain and lifting the mood. Flex yoga instructor Dr Abhishek Agrawal explains how they work, and how to make them safe and beneficial.

Why are backbends difficult as an adult when they were easy as a child?
As a young kid your spine is so supple. Overall, your bones are softer and your muscles are more in control. As you grow older your body and your spine become stronger but more dense and stiff.

What muscles should we be recruiting?
Most people bend from their neck and lower back, but backbends should not be initiated from these areas.

Moreover, while your core abdominals, your Pilates powerhouse, is an important set of muscles to work with while doing backbends, in fact it is the vacuum within our core created by the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles that help to ‘lighten’ our posture and movements. This is something you do automatically as a child, but when you grow older and spend a long time sitting or standing, lift heavy weights or become pregnant and deliver a baby, you lose the strength of this vacuum and must work to build it back up.

The cobra pose, for example, will be much easier and more comfortable if you use this vacuum by turning your mūla bandha on, your base lock. An involuntary mechanism we have lost control of, you need to practice yoga and Pilates to rebuild this strength.

What contributes to the common fear of doing backbends?
Bending backwards accounts for very little of our usual actions in daily life and as a result we aren’t used to them. There are two kinds of backbends, those into which you fall backwards and those that you lift up into; one is passive, one is active.

A major physical challenge to backbends is the fear of not being able to control the range of motion and falling. Bending back into a backbend is scary as you believe you may fall onto your head or hurt yourself by losing control and fear strikes most often when it comes to poses like camel and wheel, standing camel and wheel.

There is also the fear of pain. Even if you want to do the pose, if you go into a cobra or a more basic backbend and find your lower back is hurting, this will create fear. Many instructors don’t know what this pain feels like – but I have worked through injury and felt pain in my spine.

What is the best way to approach backbends?
Key to avoiding pain is correct sequencing, body positioning, use of muscles and listening to your body.

If you warm the body up properly then you should be able to do postures without trouble. If the correct sequencing hasn’t been done, and therefore the specific muscles aren’t warmed up, not enough blood has flushed into the area and the tissues are dry and sore. In my classes I make sure to sequence correctly to give each student enough time…

With cobra there is a fine line and you can push too hard resulting in pain in the centre of the spine. Some pain in the side muscles is acceptable but with correct sequencing shouldn’t be felt.

Body Positioning
Most people don’t know how to do cobra correctly. Widen your legs and for most students 60 percent of the pain and restriction will have gone. Move your hands forward and likewise the pose will become more comfortable for most. Teach your students to move from the mid-spine rather than lower spine.

Use of muscles
If cobra is a problem pose, if your muscles aren’t strong enough to support you, then backbends without hands will be a better choice, like lizard, crocodile, chameleon etc. These will build up your muscle strength and control, your diaphragmatic control and your confidence.

Always listen to your body
Forcing a pose, any pose, rather than breathing through it and taking your time will also lead to injury.

What are the main physical benefits of adding backbends into your routine?
There are many physical benefits but the one most immediately felt is that of recharge. A yoga class with at least six to eight backbends in it will leave you feeling recharged, energized and uplifted, especially when one of the last few poses is a backbend.

A backbend can open up and stretch the fascia, not just the superficial tissues. Stretching the coverings of the internal organs in this way brings great relief and enhances the circulation. You’re opening up and moving organs apart, allowing new, fresh blood, lymph and cerebrospinal fluid to flow helping hydrate, nourish and clean the spine and its nerves and tissues.

They also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping balance the daily stress we experience and boosting the immune system, the overall function of our organs and our body’s ability to rest.

Backbends are great for all ages, and especially for those with heart and lung issues, digestion and heart burn problems, as it opens up and stretches the body which is generally more sued to being bent forward and compressed.

Backbends also boost the health of the back in general, the spinal muscles in particular. Our muscles are interconnected, working as a group to allow the back to move in so many directions. Backbends help re-educate the spinal muscles creating a healthy and strong back and this is key to overall physical health as the spine is one of the most important parts of the body when it comes to function and movement, flexibility, strength and power.

And the main mental benefits?
Mentally I am always concerned to help students get rid of their fears. By giving them a basic backbend initially, which calls for muscular engagement but keeps most of their body on the floor, means they will be totally relaxed and fear-free. This is the way to gain their confidence and help desensitize the back, so that you can move on to standing backbends.

Pros and cons?
It is ideal to do backbends every day. Choose a different variety each day to recruit different muscles and enhance the re-education of your back muscles.

If however you have an active injury, osteoporosis, disc prolapse or hernia, then I would suggest requesting a private lesson rather than joining a class or workshop. Backbends can be very helpful with these issues, but they require one-on-one attention for safe and successful re-education of the spine.

Liberate Your Spine, Sensational Backbends
Dr. Abhishek’s upcoming workshop, Liberate Your Spine, Sensational Backbends, will take place at Flex Central Studio on 4 December, 3.45pm – 5.15pm. It will help increase your range of motion, understanding and confidence with backbends, bringing improvements to the body’s immune and nervous system, boosting patience and heart opening and opening you up to a future of restorative backbends. Book any two workshops and you’ll get a 10% discount. Read more about it here.

Share this article


Typically replies within an hour