Let’s face it back bends are hard, and they’re not for the impatient yogi. Warm ups and preparation are key to preventing injury and facilitating a healthy opening. They’re about lengthening the muscles in the front of the chest, opening the heart chakra, and strengthening (not compressing) the back. I can find both resistance and surrender in a back bend depending on how I approach it.
Like many people, I have overdeveloped (tight) chest wall muscles from working at a computer most of the day; an anterior pelvic tilt which means I have a more pronounced arch in my low back; and a history of SI joint issues. So gentle back bends help to strengthen my lower back muscles to better stabilize my pelvis and sacroiliac joint, while allowing me to lengthen and open my chest muscles which rolls my shoulders back and alleviates overstretching in my upper back.
But because of the arch in my low back, I have to approach back bends cautiously, so I focus on tilting my pelvis to lengthening the front of my body and extend out of my low back to bring the curve more into my upper back. There are more than just back muscles involved. My hip flexors, quadriceps, adductors, and iliopsoas need to be open enough to avoid compressing the lumbar region and putting pressure on the SI joint.
For me, gentle back bends have been tremendous in alleviating low back pain, specifically and I recently discovered a version of Dhanurasana (bow pose) that involves the placement of a bolster under the hip bones for support. In the post, “Better Backbends” in the Yoga Journal, Jason Crandall explains:
Dhanurasana I: Bow Pose
Propping: Place a bolster horizontally underneath your lower abdomen.
Why This Works: It keeps the front rim of your pelvis lifted and your low back long. The support of the bolster makes it easier to lift your chest and open your upper back.
How to: Place a bolster horizontally across the middle of your sticky mat. Lie face-down over the bolster so that your hip points touch the edge of the bolster that’s nearest to you. Place your forearms on the floor as though you were doing Sphinx Pose.
The placement of the bolster is key in this variation, and you’ll sense whether you’re in the right spot when you come all the way into the pose. If your hips are too far back on the bolster, you won’t feel that the bolster is helping you rock your pelvis in the appropriate direction. If your hips are too far forward on the bolster, you’ll topple forward once you hold your ankles in Bow Pose.
Follow the cue that you are receiving from the bolster and gently engage your abdominal wall; this will help you continue tilting your pelvis backward. Exhale, bend your knees, and reach back to hold the front of your ankles. If you feel yourself falling forward, simply adjust your position on the bolster.
Observe the deep opening of your chest and shoulders while your lower back arches mildly. Although it may be challenging to breathe as your diaphragm presses the bolster, take 3 to 5 breaths before releasing the pose.
Since discovering this pose and introducing it to my students, they agree that this version of bow allows them to really open their chest without the pinch that can sometimes come from trying to get into a pose before the body is ready. We ALL want to try to do every pose the teacher tells us, but it’s not always what’s best for our body. So, this is a way to experience a challenging pose without pain and open your heart to a new process.
As with all yoga, pay attention to your body. If you have high or low blood pressure, migraines, insomnia, or serious lower-back or neck injury you’ll want to avoid bow pose.
– Your Charmed Yogi
(Photo: Yoga Journal)