"In backbends, one touches the body physically, mentally, intellectually, consciously and spiritually everywhere"- B.K.S. Iyengar
Back bending has always been one of my favourite aspects of my asana practice, I relish in the simultaneous physical and spiritual opening I experience when I create space for my heart. Maybe I enjoy it because it's congruent with my nature as a 'heart on sleeve' type of person, very open to giving and receiving in all senses, but equally sometimes my natural willingness to be open can get me burnt. I find this to be a useful analogy for the approach to back bends. Their benefits are plentiful, but should be accessed through a pillar of stability.
#1: Open your hips
The ability to backbend is not solely a reflection of a mobile spine, rather, spinal mobility is a continuation of what lies directly below anatomically. A lot of my students who complain of lower back pain or stiffness around the lumbar spine have one thing in common; tight hips. This is not at all uncommon, many if not all those students work a desk job, therefore spend close to 8 hours a day with their hips encased in an unsupportive chair, with no need to engage the core etc. etc. etc. HOWEVER, the reality is most of us work a desk job, and I am in no way advocating we all go and quit our job in search of a slinkier spine, but there are ways to provide an antidote. If you are brand new to backbending, attempt the below first:
Supta Baddakonasana (reclined bound angle pose): From lying supine, bend the knees to the chest, then send knees wide and place the soles of the feet together, remain here for a minute or longer, with the option to place pillows or bricks under the knees
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (sleeping pigeon pose): another barrier to lower back mobility is tightness in the glutes. Since these muscles play such a key part in our day-to-day movement, getting them to relax can be a challenge, draw right knee to right wrist and slide the left leg back, maybe tucking left toes for stability. Allow the forehead to rest on something when you fold forward (mat, prop, hands). 20 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
For those not keen on backbends, who don't enjoy that slight sense of uncertainty, the disconcertedness of being upside down and not knowing quite where to breathe, a supported bridge is a good starting point:
From a semi-supine position (measure a hand's distance between heels and sit bones), tuck the tail bone and begin to lift the hips up, lengthening the tailbone away from the crown of the head and the knees away from the hip flexors.
Place a brick (or pillow, for lower incline) under the tailbone and let the arms rest either side of the body, allowing a frontal opening of the body and a supported lengthening of the lower back, remain here for a minute.
#3: Engage the quads
Iyengar, who I quoted at the top of this article, in much of his literature articulates the status of backbends as intermediate to advanced poses, not because of their expressive quality but rather what needs to be felt. In that sense, we need to remember to incorporate the whole body in any backbend. A key muscle group is the quads. Below is a simple and effective way to introduce the quads into your backbend:
From lying semi-supine, place a brick (narrow-ways) in between the thighs
Squeeze the brick with the inner thighs, noticing activation in the foot arches and pelvic floor
Lift into your bridge pose, but keep squeezing the brick, to take pressure away from the sacrum
#4: Urdva Dhanurasana
This is the 'peak' pose, so to speak. It physically replicates a pose a lot of us did as a kid, so can feel readily familiar when called out in a yoga class, but remember that in seeking that child-like quality of movement, we need to also re-access, and in some cases, regain the same child-like mobility and agility in the shoulders and hips. How to prep for full wheel below:
From lying semi-supine, bring the heels close to the sit bones.
Lift into bridge, interlace the fingers and shuffle the shoulders closer together.
When the shoulders are open, place the hands either side of the ears and lift up onto the crown of the head.
Align the toes forward and draw the elbows to the ceiling.
Press up from hands and feet, pressing the heart to the back of the room and fixing the gaze to the space between the hands, remain for 10-15 breaths
I hope that these tips are helpful, and allow you top access backbends to their full therapeutic potential.