A few weeks ago, I got real in class. We were in splits, which I’m NOT good at. Getting better, putting a lot of work into it, but I’m not uber flexible in that way. Hello, hamstrings! (Yeah, sorry about that one guys.)
I generally have the same thing to say to my students when we’re hanging out here: Some people are born being able to do the splits, some people anatomically have the possibility to get all the way down to the floor with a lot of work, some people will never touch down. This time I didn’t just leave it at that. I went on to say that just because your taint isn’t on the ground doesn’t mean you’re not in splits. Yup, I said taint in yoga class, one that I was teaching. (I may or may not have proceeded to say that it’s ok if your junk doesn’t touch down. Then realized I hated the word “junk,” so I told them it wasn’t junk, it was beautiful. Then realized that could be mistaken for objectification, so I said it has value. Then I realized… nope, just stopped myself there.)
We had a big laugh at my word vomit, but I believe there was value at my not-beautiful speech. To be in splits doesn’t mean you have touch down completely flat on the ground. It’s the same concept in backbends!
If you read no further, here’s your takeaway: to be in a backbend doesn’t mean you have to touch your head with your feet or to bend over completely backwards.
Anatomy definitely comes into play with backbends. Some people have more space between their vertebrae than others. They are able to bend deeper naturally. Check out my friend Christy and I playing in wheel back in 2011. This was about three and a half years after I’d started practicing yoga, and only one and a half after practicing regularly. Do need to point out who is who? (hint: Christy has the accordion back)
At this point in time, I hadn’t yet done my teacher training. I hadn’t been introduced into much alignment yet. In this picture (one of my first rounds of yoga pics ever!) and in my practice, I kind of flung myself up into this. Though I have a hint of swayback in my low back, backbends are not naturally deep and easy for me. I should have been focusing on good alignment from the very beginning rather than trying to get as deep into the bend as I possible can. It’s likely my wheel will never look like Christy’s, but our alignment cues are the same!
Simple backbend alignment rule: no crunching the lumbar spine! The back wants to hinge a lumbar vertebra or two to “help” you get into deeper backbends. But that’s so ouch on your back! Focus on lengthening the heart away from your hips and your tailbone away from your heart. The longer you can get in your spine, the more space you’ve created, and the deeper you can bend pain free. (This definitely comes in handy when it comes to backbending in inversions. Everything is literally upside down, and gravity kind of wants to just pull my hips down and hinge my lumbar spine. If I can focus on spreading the spine between my heart and my tailbone and then go for the arc, it always feels better!)
Another great tip I’ve discovered is to make sure you stay ACTIVE, and work hard with it!
Like I said, I used to kind of fling up there and be done with it. Setting myself up correctly takes extra time, but it’s so necessary. Continuing to lengthen and move within the backbend is key too. Keep finding length on the inhale, deepen on the exhale.
Let’s use wheel as an example:
- Set up for bridge pose on your back. Tuck your tailbone towards your heels. That lengthening action will lift your hips off the ground. Keep reaching your heart towards your chin and pressing down into your feet. Quads stay active.
- Plant hands up by the shoulders. Point your elbows towards the back of the room. They’ll want to splay as you lift up, but keep them pointing straight back.
- Lift up to the crown of your head first. Pause. Roll your shoulders onto your back and away from your ears. Imagine squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades. This is also sometimes referred to as “hallowing out your armpits.”
- Straighten your arms.
- Keep pressing down into the feet. That will give you lift as well as keep your quads engaged. It will also help you press your heart through your shoulders, aligning your shoulders over your wrists. Super key to find that length and quad engagement as you find a straight-legged or forearm variation.
Assists, walls, and blocks can all help finding a safe wheel pose. Never hesitate with these!
Over time, these alignment cues have helped me to safely deepen my backbends. I started really focusing on them when I wanted to work on my handstand. I naturally flip into wheel when I fall out, so I needed to make sure my wheel was strong enough and comfortable enough to support this. It’s lead to a desire to deepen my backbend for straight leg and forearm variations of wheel, go for the overhead bind in pigeon, deepen my dancer…
Kicking back out of wheel into handstand is the “F*** that’s scary!” challenge right now that I haven’t had in a while… Maybe even since I started working on handstand into wheel.
Some days I feel like I’m getting deeper and staying comfortable with it. Some days I feel like I lost months worth of work or that I’ll never get where I want to go. But just because my feet don’t touch my head in scorpion doesn’t mean that I’m not in a backbend. That’s what l I always try to remember at the end of the day.
This is what I told myself when planning for our backbend workshop at Flex and Flow! I was helping Nicci (yes, that Nicci that always requests heart openers in class) brainstorm her workshop and had the idea to have a two part workshop. Part I: on-the-floor backbends, Part II: inverted backbends. I questioned if I was qualified to lead this workshop since I don’t have the bendiest back. But I took myself back to my splits-taint conversation. Just because I can’t touch my feet to my head in scorpion or bind with both hands overhead in pigeon doesn’t mean I don’t have a backbend practice and can help others with theirs.
So come out and have all the backbend fun with Nicci and me! This coming Sunday 11am-12:30 Nicci is taking us through those on-the-floor backbends (camel, wheel, pigeon, partner playtime). Monday night 8-9:30pm, in an extended Upside Down class, we’ll work on inverted backbends with me! Sign up here to play with us, and we’ll see you there!
Remember, it’s all about how it feels in your body today! Not what you could do yesterday, not where you want to be in a year, not what the person on the mat next to you can do. It’s your practice. Happy #TransformationTuesday, sweaties!