When we think of backbends, what may come to mind is images of deep urdhva dhaunurasana (wheel) poses or heart-opening handstand hollowback poses. However, our spines can bend in 6 different directions, not just extension (backward bending).
In order to maintain spinal health and move deeper into backward bending shapes, it is necessary to stretch in each of these directions: extension, flexion (forward bending), lateral movement (side bending right and left), and rotation (twisting right and left). Additionally, cultivating strength in the core muscles that support backbending is fundamental to supporting and stabilizing the spine in backbends. These 5 simple exercises work through each of these essential elements of backbending.
Core Strengthening: Side Plank
Beginning a backbending practice with core strengthening exercises is an important way to turn on the muscles are needed to support movement of the spine. Planks and side planks are effective postures to engage these muscles. Side plank targets the internal and external oblique muscles, which line the space between our lowest ribs and upper hips on the sides of our bodies.
To come into this posture, begin in a plank with your toes tucked and heels pressing back, your hips at the same level as your heels and head, and both hands underneath your shoulders. Roll onto your left palm and the pinky edge of your left foot as you stack your right foot on top of left and lift your right arm overhead. Feel that your hip points are both evenly directed toward the wall that you are facing.
If it is too difficult to stack your feet, you can come into a modified side plank by bringing your left shin to kickstand and pressing the right sole of the foot firmly on the ground. Hold this posture for at least 5 steady breaths before switching to the second side.
Rotation: Modified Bharadvajasana’s Twist
To come into Bharadvaiasana’s Twist, begin seated with your left shin angling toward parallel with the front of your mat and your right shin bent behind you. Ground down through both sitz bones and walk your left hand to tinted fingers behind your sacrum and your right hand to tinted fingers in front of your left knee.
Allow your chest to lead your twist toward the left and take your gaze in the opposite direction so that your chin points toward your right shoulder. Hold for 5 breaths before releasing to neutral and switching to the second side.
Lateral Bending: Standing Side Bend
Come to stand with your feet either at hips-width distance apart or with your toes touching and slight space between your heels. Ground firmly through both feet and reach your left arm upward. Take an inhale to lengthen through your left side, and on your exhale, begin to side bend toward the right. Direct your left hip slightly farther toward the left, and either keep your right arm glued to your right side or take it out diagonally toward the earth. Take your gaze down your right fingertips or to the ground. Stay in this posture for at least three breaths before inhaling to come back to center. Pause for a moment in tadasana before repeating on your second side.
Spinal Flexion: Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
From tadasana, fold over your legs. Bring a deep bend to both of your knees, especially if your hamstrings are tight, so that your chest can rest over both of your thighs. Hug your arms around your calves, and if you have the space, you can interlace your hands around opposite ankles. Draw your chin into your chest and feel your spine curling forward around your legs. Stay for 5 breaths before releasing.
Spinal Extension: Ardha Dhanurasana (Half Bow)
From a standing forward fold, step back into plank and lower onto your belly. Come into sphinx by bringing your elbows under your shoulders and your forearms parallel to one another on the mat. From sphinx, curl your left foot towards your left glute, and reach your left hand back to catch the top of the foot.
If you can’t quite reach, take a strap around your foot and reach for the strap. Once you have your foot or the strap draw it in closer towards your glute while keeping your chest squared to the front of the mat. Breathe into the stretch across your left quadriceps for 4 breaths. Then, begin to kick your foot into your strap or hand to deepen into a backbend. Continue directing your sternum forward and your collarbones open. Hold for 4 breaths before gently releasing the foot back to sphinx and switching to your second side.
By strengthening your core and moving your spine in all 6 directions, you can safely and effectively deepen your backbends. This backbending practice may allow you to feel invigorated and energized.