There is something evident about backbends that makes the practitioner look healthy, capable, youthful, and accomplished. On this article as Part 1, we discuss anatomical aspects and upcoming Part 2 on effects or panic lines on backbends.
Backbends practice in yoga holds a special status. As yoga says, 'the flexibility of the spine defines youth.' Most students hold a dream to have the standing wheel, scorpion, and other variations in their yoga practice. However, in reality, very few could achieve it, mainly due to lack of sufficient hours spent or not understanding the mechanism of backbends.
Being as a yoga teacher for the last 16 years, it is a common observation that many students do not achieve the milestone of backbends.
Mainly due to an anatomical error, either the sequencing has a fault or practitioner lacks the understanding of the anatomical application.
Most yoga teachers training courses overlook back bends in detail due to inability and ease of students with these postures.
Backbends are beneficial in many ways, such as improved flexibility, better lung capacity, proper postures, improved circulation, elimination of lower back pain and makes one capable of sitting longer for pranayama and meditation.
Let's dive into anatomical aspects especially joint use during the progressive backbends -
The key area; lumbar spine is essentially a series of five building blocks called lumbar vertebra that is the trigger for all levels of backbends. They stack up, one on top of the other and generally thicker than rest of the joints. They sit on the sacrum, and the triangular bone wedged into the pelvis, where the stiffness is hidden. The sacrum is the "base bone" of the spine. The vertebrae are separated in front by the discs. The discs are the shock absorbers of the spine. They allow motion and yet absorb impact.
Most muscles of the back are attached to bony projections called Spinous and transverse processes. The attached muscles to Transverse and spinous processes are essential to define the quality of backbends.
The transverse processes stick out from the sides of the vertebrae and are mostly lever arms that muscles attach to it. These levers allow smaller muscles to move the vertebral segments more efficiently. The spinous processes which project out the back of the vertebra are also lever arms. Strong ligaments attach that prevent the spine from bending too far forward, and when bending backward, these processes abut, preventing too much backward motion.
Another segment that most yoga classes lack is the efficient work on fascia or lines of antagonists concerning backbends.
Structurally speaking, the primary purpose of all backbends is to stretch the front structures of the body (chest, solar plexus, hips and thighs). All of those structures are interlinked via fascia, so tension and restriction in one area is likely to affect the other structures along the same line of pull. (Superficial Front Line, SFL)
The secondary purpose of all backbends is to strengthen the muscles of the back (and it becomes primary for some prone poses, like Cobra). This is the crucial point, as many students collapse into their lower back while attempting deep backbends. The deeper we go, the riskier it becomes in backbends.
For the above reason, Cobra becomes a number one contender for mastering backbends.
It allows the through contraction of Gluteus family with hip extension and also manages the thoracic work through scapula adduction (in layman term, moving scapula towards each other). So it's safe, efficient with SFL and can easily manage bony projections of backbone.
For the following reasons, Cobra pose if better option than the wheel is -
Cobra pose is suitable for all levels including beginners rather than wheel that requires some practice.
Cobra uses extensors of the back as prime mover whereas wheel uses Gluteus and deltoids . Most students don't have well-developed gluteus and deltoids.
The pelvis, thighs, and arms create better support than wrist and feet.
Cobra facilitates practice with many variations for beginners as compared to a wheel.
Cobras uses equal and balanced amount of force on facets (The back part of the spine contains the joints called the facets. These facets are the governors of spinal motion. They will allow bending forward, backward and side to side but resist rotation) of backbone at neck (cervicals). Thoracic (Middle back) and lumbar (lower back) whereas the primary purpose of the of the wheel is to lengthen the spine as it doesn't work as efficient like Cobra on the facets of back bone.
BinduSar yoga offers Yoga teachers training in Rishikesh, India on 100 hours level 2 (part of 300 hours Yoga alliance) with Mukesh Kothari as an advance course on Expertise of Back Bends in March 2020 for 9 days.
Students can also practice 75 minutes class of Bindusar basics 5 focussed on Backbends at Budapest studio.
Special thanks to Timar Flora, Bindusar yoga teacher at Budapest for performing such postures gracefully. She conducts lower backbends 90 minutes special event.