Not your average joeWritten by Jennifer S. White | | email@example.com
Backbends are considered the caffeine of yoga; their anatomy and physiology both complex and fascinating. They stretch the chest, shoulder and abdominal muscles and stimulate the nervous and lymphatic systems — improving breathing capacity and revving the metabolism, among other things. Another perk is their release of adrenaline, giving the practitioner a buzz better than two cups of coffee.
Backbends also help maintain spinal health. The lower back is naturally concave whereas the upper spine rounds and often becomes even more rounded with slouching. This spinal S-curve is one reason your lumbar spine generally moves more easily into backbends than your thoracic spine. Because of this, an improperly performed backbend can compress your lower spine. Moreover, too many yogis hastily charge into advanced postures when they would be better served by simpler versions. This turns the coveted caffeine-like adrenaline rush into a panicky sensation rather than an energizing one. Enter sphinx pose.
Sphinx pose offers huge benefits with virtually no risk. This pose also allows the practitioner to playfully experiment with another back-bending complexity, the glutes.
Some yogis say to tighten the glutes during backbends while others firmly say to soften them (no pun intended). However, the best answer is actually to do both.
The gluteals consist of three muscles. Ideally during a backbend, you tighten the lower part of your buttocks and leave the upper part soft. This is possible through a complex action involving your hamstrings, adductors and lower gluteals. It’s not easy, and it takes significant mind-body coordination. During sphinx pose, though, you can safely practice both firming and softening your gluteals — and mixtures of both. Let’s work through the riddle that is back-bending step-by-step with sphinx pose.
Begin on your stomach. Bring your forearms to the floor parallel to each other with your elbows directly underneath your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide and press your palms press onto the floor. Take the tops of your feet to the floor and press each toenail down, including your pinkie toenail. Continue lengthening your lower back by pressing your pubic bone down into the floor. Feel how this strengthens your lower abdomen, helping to further elongate your tailbone towards your feet.
You can practice alternately firming and softening your glutes or you can deepen your pose by firming the lower while relaxing the upper. Find what feels right for your body and your current abilities as you reach your feet behind you. Your kneecaps may even lift with the press of your toenails. Feel both strength and opening in your lower body.
Now firm your shoulder blades into your heart center and release them down your back without pinching them together. Pause and experience this lift of your heart. Then press gently into your forearms to create more upward lift. Your chin is parallel to the floor without jutting out and your facial muscles soft as you lengthen up through the crown of your head.
Try to feel even sensation throughout your spine as you breathe for five to eight breaths. Release and rest your forehead on crossed forearms as your heels fall away from each other.
Backbends should feel good, plain and simple. You’ve likely gone too far if you immediately want to get out of the pose or your lower back feels achy after releasing it. While yoga does offer gloriously challenging backbends, it’s important to first understand your body’s architecture through work in simpler postures — such as sphinx pose.
Try practicing backbends regularly. You’ll definitely notice an improvement in your posture, and you might just find a little more energy for the rest of your day.