Back-bending is one of those skills that take a really long time, unless you’re hypermobile, or still very young and flexible. It’ll be extra hard if you have a desk job where you sit hunched all day, or if you have really strong but tight shoulders.
In fact, if you’re working on strengthening your upper body (for example with pull ups), you will need to consistently put in effort to increase or even just maintain your back flexibility. As you strengthen a muscle, it will tighten, unless you consciously include stretching and flexibility work on a regular basis.
My Backbend Routine
I’ve found that backbends are the first thing to go if I don’t practice ashtanga or something similar for a week or more. Any long haul flights will also affect them immediately. Going through this routine helps me negate any of these adverse affects.
I’ve been using this for the past year or so about 2-3 times a week to maintain flexibility, while I put more emphasis on strength. That’s why I often run through it quite quickly. My backbends have stayed fairly consistent, and partial drop backs have become much much easier with strength and practice. If you want to increase flexibility, do it 3-4 times a week with more focus and patience.
You need some kind of routine, because practicing deep backbends (such as wheel / upward bow pose, Urdhva Dhanurasana) without a proper warm up is not particularly safe or pleasant. In short, you need a bit of active and dynamic work to generate heat, and some preparatory stretches before going to the peak pose.
- A few sun salutations (Surya Namaskara, see infographic below) are perfect for warming up the spine.
- If you’re feeling cold and stiff, you can also do a bit of cardio or jumping jacks first to get the heart rate up.
- I also like to include some cat-cows and freestyle/intuitive movement in that position, and a couple thoracic spine rotations.
- To loosen up shoulders, I do some arm raises and rotations on each side.
I follow that up with a few active static poses, each held for about 15-30 second:
- Chair / Utkatasana – keeping arms up and straight next to ears really works that active shoulder & upper back flexibility.
- Downward dog / Adho Mukha Svanasana if not included before in sun salutations.
- Dolphin – basically downward dog with elbows on the floor, great for strengthening and opening the shoulders.
- Bridge to activate the glutes.
- Locust / Salabhasana to fire up the whole back body.
- Bow / Dhanurasana – I find this one relatively comfortable, but if you don’t, you can skip it or use as a peak pose.
Then I hold some passive stretching poses for about 30 seconds, or as long as feels good:
- Reclined hero / Supta Virasana stretches the hip flexors and quads. Nowadays, I can lie down on the floor, but when starting out, you may stay sitting up, or just go back to your elbows.
- Cobra / Bhujangasana works into the lower back. Look behind you to stretch the side a bit too.
- Sphinx – really pull you chest forward to get a great stretch in the middle/upper back.
- Extended puppy pose opens up the shoulders. You can also do next to the wall, or bend the elbows for a slightly different stretch.
- Some kind of spinal twist: this could be lying down or reclined, seated, thread-the-needle (this name is sometimes used for a different pose too) or a combination of those. If doing the seated twist, try doing the active version as well. By that I mean not using hands to help rotate, only your core strength. Ideally there shouldn’t be that much difference between the two.
- If my chest is feeling tight (from push ups for example), I’ll also stretch that on each side by putting a hand or elbow on the wall and turning away from it
- Similarly, I might sometimes do a cow face pose stretch for arms, or arm over chest.
Lastly, do the peak pose 3-5 times, or a couple more if you feel like it. They should get easier and deeper with repetitions. Depending on how I feel on the day, the peak pose will be either:
- Wheel – hardest for me personally. Aim to get arms straight. Make sure this isn’t just in your lower back – if you’re feeling discomfort there, back off. To improve, try incorporating some movement, such as wheel push ups, moving your hands and feet, and perhaps raising a leg to the sky.
- Camel when I want an easy day, as it doesn’t get into the shoulders as much. Your mileage may vary. Key is to keep hips forward.
- Partial drop backs – somewhere in the middle difficulty-wise, depends on how deep you go.
- You can try to take it further into king pigeon / kapotasana, but that’s pretty advanced.
Drop backs are best practiced with a teacher. It’s one of those exercises where if you do it incorrectly, you could really hurt yourself (nobody wants a spine injury). The teacher will typically stand in front of you and have their hands near or behind your waist, supporting your weight if necessary.
Raise your arms and inhale. Exhaling, move your hips forward and bend your upper back to the point where you can see your mat behind you. Only then allow the bend to move to your lower back and legs, dropping your hands onto the mat. Move them in closer towards the feet. Shift your weight slightly from hands to feet: inhale forward (weight more on feet, hands half peeling away from the floor), exhale back. Come up on an inhale, bringing arms overhead. Don’t use too much momentum, or you might stumble and bump into the teacher in front of you.
The first couple of times I tried to go down felt absolutely unnatural and terrifying, but it then actually got easier quite quickly. It’s crucial to do it with someone you know and trust.
If practicing by yourself (at home or Mysore), be very careful, and stay within your comfort zone – push it only when there’s someone around to spot you. By that I mean doing partial dropbacks. In the very beginning, this just means leaning back and looking behind you, arms staying in prayer or above your head, not going down at all.
Then you can try bending back and touching a high table with your hands, then coming back up. Avoid dropping back below a point where you can safely and easily come up by yourself. Slowly, over weeks or months, work on lowering the surface (assuming you have different level surfaces in your flat. I started with a very useful shelving unit, then moved to the bed, then our low couch). Once you get low enough, you can use stacked yoga blocks or books and gradually take them away.