Top 5 Poses to Improve Your Backbends

Reminder- You can perform each stretch statically, dynamically, and isometrically. Variety is key in functional fitness, so make sure you employ a variety of different ways in which you hold and perform each stretch. Although these are some of the best backbending stretches available, there are many more that you should also employ. Static holds are best held for a minimum of 30 seconds, and remember to breathe and listen to your body first and foremost. Always consult a doctor before beginning any exercise program.

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1. Sphinx/Cobra/Upward Facing Dog (Salamba Bhujangasana, Bhujangasana, Udrhva Mukha Svanasana)

The first postures in this backbending sequence are important to practice first so you can test the back and see how it is feeling. Backbends are intense postures and because of the prevalence of chairs, smartphones, computers, and the ilk, we always want to take it slow while our body warms up to the movements. Find yourself in a prone position (face down on your belly) to begin. Starting with sphinx pose (Salamba Bhujangasana), draw your elbows beneath your shoulders, palms out in front of you flat on the earth. Head rises up and lift through the crown of the head. Squeeze the shoulder blades together in the back and press your heart through towards the front of the room. For a deeper stretch, we can move on to cobra (Bhujangasana). Moving from sphinx, slide your hands to beneath the shoulders and allow the elbows to lift off the earth and into the sky alongside the body. The chest continues to press through and the head continues to lift skyward. You can practice Cobra two ways: Either by just using the strength of the back to lift the chest and head up, or by pressing the hands into the earth. If you have the flexibility, you can get the arms totally straight in cobra. For our deepest variation, you can enjoy upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana). Draw your hands back alongside the body until the thumbs are in line with the navel. From here, press into the earth with the hands and life the torso, pelvis, and knees off the earth so that the tops of the feet and hands are the only parts of the body making contact with the earth. Just like sphinx and cobra, continue to squeeze the shoulder blades together and down the back, press the heart up and forward, and lengthen through the crown of the head.

2. Camel ( Ustrasana)

When practicing camel, it's important that you keep the core engaged so as to protect the low back from unnecessary compression. To keep the core engaged, engage the transverse abdominals and draw the navel back towards the spine, and also lift the pelvic floor by engaging the pc muscles. Once the core is engaged, we can begin working into the pose. Find yourself kneeling with your hips and torso stacked over your knees. Once here, and the core is engaged, take your hands to the hip bones just above the glutes. Press your heart towards the sky, your pelvis to the front, and engage the knees and feet into the earth. The head can drop back as far as is comfortable. If there is neck pain, keep the chin drawn towards the chest. As with all backbends, and especially ones that require a strong core like camel, it's so important to remember to breathe and never push past your limit. Listen to your body first and foremost.

3. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana/ Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Begin by laying down supine, on your back, and the crawl your feet towards the glutes until they are beneath the knees. Press the feet into the earth and lift the pelvis towards the sky. Clasp the hands beneath the glutes or grab onto the shins, depending on the length of your arms and the needs of your shoulders. Once here, roll your shoulder blades towards each other beneath you and energetically lift the heart towards the sky. Keep the jaw soft and the eyes easy, and you can play with walking the feet closer to the torso or lifting onto the tip toes to change the intensity of the posture.

4. Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

From seated position, take your hands behind your back and touch the backs of the hands either to the low back or take the hands under each glute respectively. Squeeze the elbows and shoulders together, which creates a shelf behind your back. Lay down on the shelf created by your forearms and elbows and allow your head to drop back towards the earth. Keep the elbows and shoulders squeezing together and lift the heart to the sky. If this is inaccessible for you, then you can use a block, bolster, or rolled up blanket to slide between the shoulder blades and this creates the shelf without the use of the arms. This propped up version is called Supported Fish (Salamba Matsyasana) and is great if you have tight shoulders but still want to enjoy the great benefits of this pose.

5. Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana/ Chakrasana)

For wheel pose, it is important to understand our unique limitations as practitioners, and not force our body into any position. Wheel is not for everyone, and if you struggle performing this posture, back off and work on first 4 postures until you find this pose doable without strain. To perform the posture, lay on your back and reach your hands towards the sky. Bend the elbows and place your hands, palms down, alongside the ears. Walk the feet towards the glutes, and then press into the hands and the feet evenly to lift the pelvis directly skywards. Look between the hands and remember to breathe. As you become more flexible, you can walk the hands and feet closer to each other. Eventually, you will be able to get the hands to the ankles and begin walking the hands up the legs, but this is typically with years and even decades of practice.

Good luck improving your posture while you practice backbends,

-Andrew Morris