A common complaint of students is that they experience pain during and/or after a back bend posture.
To understand how this happens, let’s start by looking at the geometry and anatomy of how the back works and what we are trying to achieve in the pose. This is important as the spine is the focus of Hatha Yoga as it carries awareness and the energy of life.
The spine is an amazing piece of engineering that has four spinal curves and movement in four directions. It is important to use different techniques with a suitable range of movement for each individual segment of the spinal column. Using the same movements for the entire spine or incorrect ones for any segment is potentially dangerous and can result in pain and possible long term injury.
Adding to this is the uniqueness of “Back Bends”. Some Poses use gravity to assist movement, while others are anti-gravity movement. As such, different muscles are needed in different poses. It is important to note that flexibility is needed in the hip flexors and shoulders in all back bends; this assist in allowing the natural curve of the spine to be maintained (an important factor).
Let’s concentrate on Urdhva Dhanurasana or sometimes called the wheel.
We begin with the body’s contact points on the earth (the hands and the feet). From this grounding, we now lift into the pose using the energy of the breath, a deep inhale. This creates a lifting effect (similar to a balloon).
In the chest, raising us away from the mat (it should be noted the Iyengar practitioners use an exhale which adds to stability in the lower back but lack the boyancey).The physical lift is the synchronized engagement and movement of the quadriceps and hamstring (to allow the hips to lift) and the arms (but the chest must start inflating with the breath before the arms are fully extended to lead the chest , so the shoulders don’t jam the neck).
The most common and dangerous error to make is in the hip lift when we over-use the strong gluteus muscles. The prime movers should be the hamstrings and quads in this movement.
Using the gluteus (as the primary mover) will lock the pelvis and not allow the natural curve of the lumbar spine to be maintained. This will cause the tailbone to move towards the spine, crunching together the lower vertebra and causing compression in the lumbar spine. This is results in the wrong pelvic tilt. We should also use the adductor muscles (inner thighs) squeezing them towards each other but not changing the knee alignment, to stabilize the sacrum.
It cannot be overstated how important it is to maintain the natural curve of the lumbar spine, an understanding of Mula Bandha will assist in the correct pelvic stabilization. A simplistic way of describing the muscular workings of this is to draw the tailbone and pubic bone towards each other and allow them to meet at the perineum. On a physical dimension, this engages the muscles of the pelvic diagram in two directions (linear and lateral). This is a very gross understanding of Mula Bandha and does not elaborate on the energy and softness of the movement. Keeping the natural curve of the spine allows the space in the lower vertebra to be maintained, while the less mobile part of the back, the mid-back or thoracic attempts to open. Again the tailbone must not curve back towards the spine. If it does, the lower vertebra will crunch – a very unpleasant sensation.
Lifting and opening
Once we have the lift; it’s time to take the power and lift of the asana into the front of the body. Have a sense of straightening the legs (or lifting them towards the sky). This engages the quadriceps and the hip flexors, releasing tension in the hamstrings and gluteus. This release allows the pelvis to articulate movement, thereby opening and releasing spinal energy and physically supporting the spine in the correct alignment.
Now focus on lifting the heart, the physical movement is an engagement of the pectorals (chest), latissimus dorsi (large back muscle) and rhomboids (between the shoulder blades). This releases the shoulders and trapezes (upper back) to allow the neck to be free and open the heart. The inhale of the breath and Uddiyana Banda will also assist this movement.
Open hip flexors and shoulder (with the appropriate yoga poses, look out for more in the next newsletter) is vital preparation for those who spend much of their days seated at their desk, hunched over the computer.
Pranayama can assist as a gateway to back bending and create deeper awareness in this asana. The breath carries the potential for deepening levels of awareness and movement in the spine. Energetically, backbends are heart opening poses, to allow us to open and surrender ourselves to life.