Making Yoga Accessible to Every Body: Common Alignment Mistakes in Backbends and How to Avoid Them

Olga Kabel is yoga therapist and  founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz, a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers in organizing yoga practices. In this interview, she talks about principles for maximizing the benefits of backbends while avoiding the pitfalls.

YogaUOnline: Alignment sometimes gets criticized in the yoga community for attempting to fit people into “one size fits all” expressions of the pose. But if we completely drop the concept, are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Is  there more to the concept of alignment?

Olga Kabel: Definitely. To me, alignment is about purposefulness and intention. Whatever shape you assume when you are doing a yoga pose, know why are you doing it. If we have a deep understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, then the amount of memorizing is reduced. We don’t have to think so hard because we understand the essence of the pose.

Sometimes we do things simply because we observe other people doing them, or we simply assumed that it was how things are done. However, once we take a closer look and gain a better understanding of what the poses are meant to accomplish, then we can truly grasp how to adapt each pose to individual students so they can maximize the benefits.

Bhujangasana or Cobra Pose is an excellent example of that because it an incredibly effective backbend. Despite being highly effective for lower back tension, it is often done with incorrect alignment and actually creates more problems instead of releasing the tension. So, how do we understand this pose and how do we approach it in a way that we don’t hurt our students but actually help them? The answer is with purposefulness and intention.

YogaUOnline: Many yoga students experience lower back pain in backbends, a common issue linked to misalignment. What is the source of this?

Olga Kabel: There are many components to this issue. Whenever I read articles or hear on the news about large number of people suffering from lower back pain, I always say, “A little Cobra would go such a long way.” I don’t suggest that it’s going to solve every problem; there is a complexity and variety of back pain people can experience. However, this one pose can be a great first step in learning how to release tension in the lower back.

When we think about backbends in general, we tend to envision those deep poses such as Wheel Pose or Dancer’s Pose. First of all, those are not accessible to the majority of students. There are other poses, like Cobra Pose, which  are much less dramatic,  but which greatly help increase circulation in  the lower back/upper back areas; they reduce chronic tension, and create more mobility and stability. Less dramatic, more effective.

Unfortunately,  I frequently observe new students trying to deepen their bend in Cobra Pose by using their arms. The result is they create pivot points in some areas in their back, usually in the lower back or a little higher. This effectively folds their bodies, creating a lot of tension in the lumbar area, which is the opposite of what we want to accomplish.

Instead of creating that pivot point, you must distribute the curve all along the back: from the neck, through the upper back, into the lower back so you create equal contraction and engagement in all the posterior back muscles. This will increase blood flow into the area and release tension.

This can also help facilitate sacrum stabilization. Right now, it’s not uncommon for yoga practitioners to struggle with a destabilized sacroiliac joint due to alignment issues. Cobra, and what I call the Cobra sister poses – Vimanasana and Salabhasana – can be very effective in creating stability and strength in the whole lumbosacral area, strengthening all the muscles that support it.

YogaUOnline: Managing our own expectations isn’t always easy. How do you help your  students reconcile the picture of  backbends they see in the yoga magazines, and the actual reality of what they are able to accomplish in their body?

Olga Kabel: It goes back to the intention. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to audition for Cirque du Soleil? Or are you trying to make your back feel better? That’s the initial premise – How do you approach the pose? Sometimes it can be a struggle to show this to people, especially when they have been doing it a certain way for an extended period of time.

The first thing that they do for Cobra is push up with their arms to create that pivot point. It requires some retraining. One of the things I like to do is to ask people to first do it the way they normally do it, and feel the activity in their back. Then, try the different way. Instead of pushing yourself into the pose, try to pull with your arms instead; lifting the chest forward and up, creating more length through the front of the body and more lift. How does that feel in your lower back? Is there a difference? Usually, comparing the two experiences has an impact.

YogaUOnline: When you mentioned SI joint issues, does that comes more from the asymmetrical poses, like Trikonasana and Warrior Poses?

Olga Kabel: It is not the case that asymmetrical poses will cause sacroiliac joint issues. However, people who have more mobility than normal in the sacroiliac joints are more susceptible. Any time they do asymmetrical poses, especially without proper preparation and compensation, things can pop out of place. It can be pretty immediate for people, so that’s why we use stable backbending to prevent the pop-up from happening, to protect the sacroiliac joint, but also, over time to strengthen the areas so it’s less likely to get out of place.

YogaUOnline: In backbends, it’s pretty obvious when you have gone too far because your lower back starts to hurt. What are the warning signs for the SI joint?

Olga Kabel: For some people, it can be immediate. The SI joint can simply pop out of place. For others, it is less pronounced. Generally, it’s teaching people body awareness, and if you do a lot of asymmetrical poses, makes sure that you balance them out with symmetrical ones. If you do a lot of standing poses, make sure afterwards you transition to the ground and do some sort of stable backbends. I think it’s also both an intellectual understanding of what’s going on and a practical exploration to see how the body responds to this kind of practice.

YogaUOnline: You have course on YogaU on refining alignment in backbends and lateral bends. Could you talk a little bit more specifically about the course and what you’re covering?

Olga Kabel: In the first part of the course, we’ll focus on backbends. We will discuss what a backbend is, and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish when we’re doing them. There are two very specific and different types of backbends. Depending on what type of a backbend you’re doing, the technique will be a little different. We will take a closer look at that.

Then, we’ll address which backbends fall into each category, when it is appropriate to do those backbends and where they fit within a yoga practice. After that, we’ll focus on the release valves which arise when your body is assuming an accustomed position to avoid working certain areas. We will do this one by one and I’ll explain the potential issues with each one, and what we can do to correct them. The second part will follow the same pattern as far as structure, but we’ll be taking a look at lateral bends.

Again, the idea is that if we have a deep understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, we can understand the essence of the pose. This in turns makes it easier to know how to adapt each pose to each individual student, so they can maximize the benefits. 

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