What does "backbending over a beach ball" actually mean? The benefits to backbending are numerous but can be compromised if there is excessive compression on the lumbar spine. Do you have a smooth, even arc, or sharp angles and flat lines? Activ Life yogi, Louise FitzRoy, shares her tips on how to come in and out of backbends.
Let's take Ustrasana (Camel Pose) for example. Lifting up through the crown of the head, creating space between the vertebrae of the spine, palms supporting the lower back, begin to arch your spine over an imaginary beach ball. This encourages you to extend through the thoracic spine (not just the lumbar spine) to create an even arch throughout.
In anatomical terms, we refer to the areas that have excessive movement available to them as “hypermobile,” and those which don’t contribute much motion as “hypomobile." Hyper- and hypomobile areas often neighbour each other in the body because once a specific joint stops moving well, a neighboring joint will be required to move more than it should to compensate.
The "healthy spinal extension" that we may well believe we’re doing can actually be more accurately described as "very little extension in the thoracic spine and too much extension (hyperextension) in the upper lumbar spine." In other words, instead of a well-distributed curve throughout the whole spine, there is very little curve in the upper and mid back, and too much curve in the low back - a clear indication that the lumbar spine has moved too much in the backbend while the thoracic spine has contributed relatively little motion.
Pain and discomfort in the lower back are are signs that a backbend is not evenly distributed, and this is actually a very common experience for many yogis.
Urdhva dhanurasana should not cause strain or shallow, labored breathing and grimaced faces. You shouldn't feel a wave of relief when you lower down from the pose as if you just had to push your body into extreme discomfort in order to achieve the pose. A well-executed backbend should feel manageable - not strained and uncomfortable. A skillful backbend utilises a moderate amount of motion across many joints to achieve what looks like a smooth, curved arc all along the body.
Try taking a milder version of these deep backbends instead (don’t hesitate to integrate props into your poses!) and strive for that smooth, even, stable arch whose foundation is rooted in body awareness and movement integrity.
TIP: My rest pose of choice between Wheel poses is Supta Baddha Konasana or legs out wide and knees together, rather than hugging knees into the chest. You don't want to undo the opening being created in your backbending practice by flexing the spine in the opposite shape you're aiming for. Resist the urge to curl up, because that just squeezes the intevertebral discs on the opposite way. Once you've finished your backbending, of course, take a gentle forward fold. But not until you are finished!
ONE MORE TIP: Twists before backbending help to open up the thoracic spine and twists after, assist to neutralise the spine again.