yoga woman doing Gate exercise, Parighasana pose

Backbending Prep: 3 Mild Yoga Backbends for Energy and Focus

By: 
Kathryn Boland, R-CYT, R-DMT

Backbending yoga poses can invigorate us and open up our heart spaces. They’re usually cued at the end of yoga classes, to help give that last push of energy needed to finish class. Classic ones include Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). Yet many other poses also offer a backbending effect, even if they’re not as extreme or capable of bringing the same sort of sensation as those more intense backbending poses. These more mild-natured poses actually open up new possibilities for practicing backbends. 

First, being less extreme means that they can be practiced earlier on in classes. That allows for additional sequencing options, as well as steady boosts of backbending energy at particular points in class (and not just at the end). Second, when it comes to these poses, some practitioners have medical contraindications or other physical limitations. With these milder backbending poses, those practitioners can still have access to backbending benefits and the experience of practicing them. Let’s take a look at a few of these adaptive backbending yoga poses! 

Parighasana (Gate Latch Pose)       Parighasana, Gate Pose, Gate Latch Pose, gentle backbend, lateral bending pose, backbend prep pose

The action of leaning back, combined with the overall placement of the spine, creates a slight backbending effect here. Because Parighasana is a lateral bending pose, it can help mobilize the thoracic spine, making subsequent backbends easier. It can be practiced throughout classes, with fluid and intuitive posture sequencing, only requiring a bit of prior warming up. 

  1. Start in a kneeling position (hips over knees). Feel your core engaged and tailbone heavy. 

  2. Extend your right leg out to the side with your foot on the floor. Depending on the placement of your hip sockets, your leg will likely need to be at some degree of an angle to your pelvis. In other words, your leg will probably need to angle forward slightly. Feel the outer edge of that foot push down, while the inner edge pulls up, as in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose). 

  3. Extend your arms out directly from your shoulders, palms facing down, as in Warrior II. Extend your torso to the right, resting your right hand down on your right leg (just not on your right knee). Then take your left arm up and over to the right, next to your head, facing your left palm down to face over your right leg. 

  4. Fix your gaze up at your left arm, sloped over your head, unless doing so bothers your neck, in which case, gaze softly forward.

  5. Keeping all of the above, feel a slight leaning back behind your heart, with a slight lifting of your chest. This will create a mild backbending effect. Keep your legs engaged maintaining stability as you add in this refinement: spiral the outer thighs outward and the inner thighs inward. 

  6. As you breathe in, see if you can find a bit more length through your spine. In particular, breathe into the sides of your torso, feeling them stay long and expansive. As you breathe out, release any tension that you may notice, in the jaw, face, teeth, neck, shoulders, or anywhere else. 

  7. Hold the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, and then release it. Rest in a kneeling position for a few breaths. 

  8. Then repeat on the other side. Follow steps 1-5 with the left leg-lengthening out, practicing the pose on the left side of the body. 

Reverse Parighasana (Stargazer Pose)   Reverse Parighasana, Star gazer pose, backbending pose

This pose is similar to Gate Pose, yet adds even more backbending action. If you have any significant spinal issues, it may be best to stay with Gate Pose and forgo this one.

  1. Start in a kneeling position (hips over knees). Feel your core engaged and tailbone heavy. 

  2. Extend your right leg out to the side with your foot on the floor. Depending on the placement of your hip sockets, your leg will likely need to be at some degree of an angle to your pelvis. In other words, your leg will probably need to angle forward slightly. Feel the outer edge of that foot push down, while the inner edge pulls up, as done with Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose). 

  3. Extend your arms out directly from your shoulders, palms facing down, as in Warrior II. Keeping your spine upright, rest your right hand down your right leg (just not on your right knee). 

  4. Extend your torso over to the left and place your left hand six inches to a foot on the ground behind you on your left side, keeping your right leg and foot in the same position. Also, make sure to spread your left hand’s fingers wide and press into the whole hand to avoid straining your wrists.

  5. In order to protect your spine here, feel your belly pull toward your spine and power up through your legs (as described with Gate Pose, feel your outer thighs wrap outward while your inner thighs hug inward). 

  6. Swing your right arm to the left and then over your head, so that it’s reaching behind you and held over your face. Spin your right palm down. 

  7. To experience something even more spacious and expansive here, feel your hips shift forward and upward. If your low back pinches from doing so, then you’ve gone a bit too far, and it’s best to lower your hips just slightly. 

  8. As you breathe in, lengthen through the sides of your torso. As you breathe out, try to exhale any tension that you may notice. 

  9. Hold here for 5 to 10 breaths, continuing to engage through your belly and legs. 

  10. Come out of the pose, moving back into a kneeling position. Then practice it on the other side, practicing steps 1-7, starting with the left leg out to the side. 

Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx Pose)    Salamba Bhujangasana, sphinx pose, mild backbending pose, yoga basics, back pending prep pose

This pose is a mild prone (lying on belly) backbending pose, somewhat of a less extreme version of Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). It offers possibilities for releasing the neck, for instance, swinging the head side-to-side like a pendulum or just letting it hang (chin sinking to your chest).    

  1. Lie on your belly. Check-in with your breath, making sure that it’s fluid and full. It may feel constrained because you’re on your belly. If that’s the case, see if you can breathe into your backside.

  2. Slide your elbows forward, and then squeeze them inward, until they’re under your shoulders and your forearms are parallel. 

  3. Scoop your belly in toward your spine. That action will help protect it.

  4. Ground the tops of your feet. Then feel your inner thighs roll upward while your outer thighs spiral outward. This will help stabilize the pose. 

  5. Fix your gaze, your Drishti, steadily forward. Try to soften in between your eyebrows, even with this fixed steadiness. 

  6. Take care not to throw your head back. This can compress the base of your skull and top of your cervical spine. Lengthen the back of your neck.

  7. Check-in with your breathing, making sure that it's smooth and rhythmic. If it’s choppy and labored, that very well may be your body telling you to come out of the pose and rest. 

  8. If you’re fine here, breathe steadily in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths. 

  9. Then come out, into a resting pose or another pose as may be fitting in your asana sequence.

Study with master teacher, Julie Gudmestad and YogaUOnline - Anatomy-Based Yoga Teaching Methodology: Principles of Safe Forward Bending.
Julie Gudmestad, Yoga teacher, Yoga therapist, Safe forward Bending, Yoga and Anatomy, Yoga and Anatomy-based alignment

 

Kathryn BolandKathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

   

Editor's Picks