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How to Backbend Better

By Lara Heimann

Jun 29, 2022

A backbend is a yoga pose involving an inverted stretch, extending backward to form a bridge shape. This is a popular, fundamental yoga pose for opening the chest and engaging the hip extensors.

If you dislike the way backbends feel in your body, start with the mechanics. When done right, a backbend should feel invigorating and refreshing. If it’s painful, you’re probably not positioning your body correctly. Focusing on the basics will help you do the pose painlessly.

Cobra pose, known in yoga as Bhujangasana, is a great starting pose for practicing a backbend. This pose helps with your breathing and alignment. It is one of the few yoga poses that uses a “pull” force, extending the spine while working the arms. It opens the front of the body while strengthening the back of the body and re-establishing a neutral pelvis.

Sometimes people misinterpret the Cobra pose, thinking the head should drop back as the “hood” of the throat opens up and the hands should push down to get more of a “backbend.” This common misalignment hyperextends the neck and compresses the low back, causing more harm than good. The height of the cobra is not as important as the action and alignment. Let yourself feel the openness in your chest. 

How To Practice Cobra

Lie on your belly and press your public bone down to the floor. If this is challenging, place a blanket or folded towel under your pelvis to keep it neutral and not tipped forward. Bring your hands under your shoulders and push against the floor. Use this pushing action to bring the chest forward as you pull your hands back, spreading the chest tissue as the “hood” of the cobra opens up. 

Look forward and lengthen the back of your neck. Engage the back body, including the glutes, to create a counter-stability for your chest opening. Typically, an inhale will help the movement. Lower your chest as you exhale. Perform 3-5 reps and lift into plank.

You can also practice moving from a plank into the Cobra position. Lower your torso to the floor with an exhale, pull into the Cobra on an inhale, and return to plank on an exhale by pushing the floor away. Repeat often in a yoga sequence or on its own throughout the day. 

Once you feel that you’ve mastered Cobra, you’ll be able to transition into a backbend. Use the same techniques for arching backward and opening your chest, but practice beginning on your feet. You’ll be amazed at how far you can comfortably reach!

How To Practice Wheel Pose

For a “deeper” backbend, yogis often aspire to do a Wheel pose. This is a big backbend. In order to prepare for and adapt to this advanced position, yogis must prepare their bodies during practice in a variety of areas. Focus your daily exercise on developing mobile shoulders and hips. Engage your spine, pelvis, and glutes in as many stretches as possible. Once you feel strong and confident in these important areas, you’re ready to begin practicing Wheel pose. 

To safely do Wheel, the yogi must actively extend the spine and engage the core. If you lie over a big therapy ball or a yoga trapeze, you can get the same spinal extension but it’s much more passive. Practicing for Wheel pose activates your legs, arms, and core, making it safer and more beneficial than a passive stretch.

The best way to modify or prepare for Wheel is to work on the fundamental building blocks. Begin with a solid bridge pose with a neutral pelvis and active glutes. Next, move close to a wall with your head near and feet farthest away from the wall. 

Place two yoga blocks against the wall and bring your hands to the blocks. Attempt to press down and lift your head off the floor after you have first lifted into bridge pose. The blocks make it a bit easier for the shoulder opening but you still might have to work on the required strength to push off.

Making Wheel more challenging is fairly easy. You can lift one leg at a time, or you can lift one arm at a time and grab one calf with that hand. (Just don’t do both at the same time!) You can also lower your forearms to the floor for a greater opening in the shoulders and chest.

Start small and find joy in the nuances of bending your back with strength, integrity, and patience. It’s okay if the stretch is simple and gentle at first. With practice, your body will be capable of the amazing, rejuvenating backbend pose.

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  • Lara Heimann
  • Kristin Williams
  • Rhonna Griffin

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