Backbends in yoga are often misunderstood to mean one should bend your back as much as possible. If you are someone who has always disliked the way backbends have felt in your body, start first with the mechanics of how a backbend should be executed. Cobra pose, known in yoga as Bhujangasana, is one of my favorites because it can counter the modern life flexed posture and help your breathing and alignment. It extends the spine while working the arms in one of the few yoga poses that uses a “pull” force. This pose is wonderful for opening the front of the body while strengthening the back of the body and reestablishing a neutral pelvis. You can perform this pose at any time but it is even more beneficial after warming the body so that you can get a more successful pull on the restricted tissue. It can be done throughout the day to counter the “rounded back syndrome”, using a wall, the floor, or even a countertop or chair seat.
People often misinterpret the purpose of the 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 and sacroiliac joint. The height of the cobra is not as important as the action and alignment.
How to practice cobra
Lie on your belly and press your pubic bone down into 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 pull your hands back against the floor without moving them. Use this pulling action to bring the chest forward as you pull your hands back, spreading the chest tissue as the “hood” of the cobra opening up . Look forward and lengthen the back of the neck. Engage the back body, including the glutes, to create a counter stability for the chest opening. Typically, an inhale will help the movement and lower the chest as you exhale. Perform 3-5 reps and lift into plank.
You can also practice moving from plank, lower to the floor with an exhale, pull into 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.
For a “deeper” backbend, yogis often aspire to wheel pose. The best tip for doing wheel pose safely is to fully prepare the body as this is a huge backbend. Throwing wheel in at the end of every class is not sufficient for preparing the body and can in fact lead to poor mechanics and compensations.
The checklist for prepping for wheel pose is HUGE!
The shoulders must be mobile and strong, the thoracic spine needs adequate extension, the pelvis needs to maintain neutral with active glutes and the hips must have good flexibility and stability. Even though that is a lot to consider for proper preparation, it is fully doable with a well-sequenced, intelligent yoga flow.
One of the biggest benefits of wheel is the extension of the spine to a fuller expression with active core integration. If you lie over a big therapy ball or a yoga trapeze, you can get the same extension of the spine but it is much more passive. The ground reaction force that travels from the floor into both hands and feet in wheel pose activates the muscles of the legs, arms, and core in a magical way that feels amazing and is safer than a more passive stretch.
The best way to modify or prepare for wheel is to work on the building blocks. Begin with a solid bridge pose with a neutral pelvis and active glutes ( you ALWAYS want your glutes firing for backbends, no matter what you might have been told or read). The next stage will work the shoulders and thoracic extension. Move close to a wall with your head near and feet farthest away from the wall. Place two yoga blocks against the wall and then 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 a fairly easy step if you are able to perform wheel in its fullest expression. You can lift one leg at a time, 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.