1. They counter-pose the damaging actions we put our bodies through every day
If you work at a computer, drive a car or are just the majority of the western world; chances are you’ve become accustomed to the habit of sitting for long periods of time with the shoulders rounded and chest collapsed, allowing tension to build up in the neck.
Backbends help us to create the opposite actions to the ones we do day-today. Opening up the shoulders, chest and back can relieve a lot of the tightness and stiffness which generally accompanies office jobs and poor posture.
If you're stuck at a desk all day, consider practicing some gentle backbends before and after work such as setu bandhasana (bridge pose), bhujangasana (cobra pose) and urdhva mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog pose).
2. They strengthen the muscles of the back
A lot of back pain is blamed on having a ‘weak core’, and when we think of the core muscles, many of us focus solely on the abdominals. The core though, is also made up of the muscles of our lower back!
When we practice backbends, we engage the erector spinae muscles (the muscles either side of the spine) and thus build up strength around our all important spinal cord.
Asanas (poses) such as Salabhasana (locust pose) Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Urdvha Dhanurasana (Full Wheel) are especially useful in strengthening the muscles of the back.
3. They encourage us to open up emotionally
If we’re used to putting up barriers and making sure no one sees our vulnerable side, we’re missing out on a lot of what life has to offer. Opening up and being honest about who we are and how we feel allows us to connect to others on a deeper level, and therefore improving our own quality of life.
Back bending opens up the heart space, which has a very direct connection to our sense of wellbeing and connectedness with others. A ‘heart opening’ yoga practice will often include lots of backbends such as Kamatkarasana (wild thing) and Natajarasana (dancer pose).
4. They help to un-block the subtle body
When we’re stuck in a rut, we often look to things outside of us to fix the problem, but – as the teachings of yoga encourage us to learn – the answer always lies within. Backbends stimulate the prana or ‘life force’ within us, encouraging a flow of energy which helps to unblock anything within our subtle body that may be preventing us from reaching our potential.
When our prana is flowing freely, we feel healthy, happy and vital, so make sure backbends are a part of your every day physical yoga practice.
5. They help us to breathe more fully
The primary purpose of backbends is to open up the front of the body, and as we do so – we expand the ribcage, and surrounding muscles. This opening allows the muscles which aid inhalation to lengthen and increase our capacity for expanding the lungs. Poses such as Urdvha Dhanurasana (Full Wheel), Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Pursvottanasana – (upward facing plank pose or ‘stretching of the east’) – are all brilliant for expanding our ability to breathe fully and deeply.
6. They boost our energy levels!
Have you ever noticed that little rush of energy you feel after practicing backbends? You may realise your eyes feel a little brighter, your breath is deeper and you feel more alert and aware. You’ve probably heard that backbends can be stimulating and energising.
Of course, backbends will have different effects for everyone, but the general consensus is that they’re brilliant for a boost of energy because of their capacity to increase our breathing ability and open up the subtle energy channels.
Increase the energy in your practice by focussing on the backbends which are already included in surya namaskar (sun salutations), such as bhujangasana (cobra pose) or urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose).
7. They challenge us to face fears
Backbends that require a little courage, such as Urdvha Dhanurasana or Ustrasana, allow us to move a little outside of our comfort zone – and this is when we really begin to grow! Facing the fear of lifting up or dropping back in to a backbend brings us closer to forming deep trust with ourselves, which can advance both our physical yoga practice and sense of daily intuition.
The next time you practice backbends, notice what affect they have on you – do you find them energising or soothing? Do they fill you with fear or love? And what are your favourite back bending poses to practice?