Main event: Urdhva dhanurasana, (full) backbend

Our four weeks of spinal extensions conclude with the full backbend, a pose towards which we have been moving by exploring how to extend and stretch the spine and undo muscular patterns that make such movement challenging. Much of this has to do with tight shoulders, of course, but mid- and upper-back muscles that are “locked long” are also culprits. We also need strong abdominal muscles to do a backbend, something that might be surprising to those new to this practice. Strong use of the abdominals allows the back muscles to relax into the backbend/spinal extension pose and ensures that the spine stretches out evenly into the pose.

We begin by opening the fronts of the hips, including the psoas muscles.

Low lunge with arms up: Imagine the you are about to slide the front heel backwards (but it doesn’t budge) – this will engage your core and provide you with stability and balance. If needed, a blanket can be used under the back knee, but try to become light on that knee by pressing the top of the back foot strongly into the ground – another way that you can engage core and maintain stability.
If you are stable and able to relax the trapezius, you may take your head back. Do so only if this feels comfortable – the neck arches out gracefully from between the shoulder blades. Reach the arms strongly up and back, keeping the elbows straight. Strong abdominals are the key; lift the sternum up.

Taking a pose from last week’s practice, we open up the shoulders, with or without the block.

Clasp the hands and move the elbows just wide enough apart to wiggle your head through them. Make sure that your elbows do not move out when you take the position. If using the block, draw the upper arm bones back into the shoulder socket consciously. Keep the core strong so that the lower back does not sag.

We then prepare the lower body for the backbend action.

Bridge pose, arms clasped: Feet are hip-width apart and parallel; imagine that you are holding a soccer ball between your legs (or, you could place a block between the thighs and hold it very lightly). Lift the sternum, open the angle at the backs of the knees and clasp the hands under your back, rolling the outer arms under you. There is a small space under your neck, and the head presses somewhat into the ground. Breathe well.

Next, we prepare the upper body, using the bolster as we did last week. The bolster informs the mid-spine how it needs to extend when attempting the backbend.

Lift the hips to place the hands in position, then slowly replace the hips to the ground without losing the hands. Soften the back muscles to do so. If the hands insist on coming together and the elbows go out, use a block under your head to help you keep the arms apart, and a belt just above your elbows to help keep the elbows from splaying out (“side reins”).

Finally, we move into the backbend by lifting the lower body first, then lifting the upper body.

Place the hands shoulder-width apart on either side of the head. Lift the heels, which are as close as possible to the hips, and then press the knees forward – this action will pull the hips off the ground slightly, allowing the spine to stretch and sway, like a hammock.
Next, open the angle in the back of the knees and lift the hips, bringing the shoulders close to the feet and the ribs more vertical. Be sure to engage the abdominals, but keep the glutes are relaxed as possible.
Finally, push the ground away with your hands and you lift into the full backbend. Again, check that you are engaging your abdominals, relaxing your glutes, and imagine a soccer ball between your knees. You elbows must remain no wider than shoulder-width as you are coming up to execute this pose in correct alignment and without undue strain in the shoulders or lower back. Eventually, you will be able to shift the shoulders over the wrists more and straighten the legs.

Backbends/heart openers are powerful poses that can release a lot of emotions. They are energizing and fun, but they do take practice! Do not be discouraged if they feel impossible at first – practice the previous week’s poses, practice the poses that lead up to backbends, be disciplined, and all will come 🙂

~namaste!

Sylvia

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston. 

2 thoughts on “Main event: Urdhva dhanurasana, (full) backbend”

  1. Great review of last week. Thank you for all your inspiration and positivity. My horse thanks you as well as my body is slowly becoming more flexible, available and stronger.

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