Back-bending (back extension) doesn’t often happen in our sedentary lives…
Years ago, when I was working in a chronic care hospital, a physician friend explained that we start our lives in the fetal position, and in the advanced stages of dementia we often end up the same way. I’ve always been fascinated by our deeply-wired preference for flexed positions. Explanations range from a peculiarity of our neurology, to an instinctive need to protect the fronts of our bodies (vital organs), to the long-term effects of gravity. Of course having been designed with our eyes on the front of our heads, and because we’re wired to be led around by the eyeballs, we also suffer from the cumulative effects of working, reading, and socializing while hunched over our devices. Personally, I just find flexed positions warmer—so between October and April, that’s usually how you’ll find me.
Bones are not as solid as we imagine…
Although we imagine our bones are hard and immobile, they are living tissues that are constantly remodelling. Wolff’s law states that a bone will adapt to whatever loads it is experiencing. If bones are placed in a particular position over a long period they will re-shape themselves to better withstand the strain. The opposite is also true—if you stay in a zero-gravity environment for long enough your bones will start to dissolve. So it should not come as a surprise that because of our sedentary lifestyles we gradually lose our normal spinal curvatures as we age, even if we are healthy and pain-free.
The “standard issue” spine has four curves. If you look at your spinal column from the side, you’ll observe that the sacrum and thoracic spine curve convexly (kyphosis) and the lumbar and cervical spines curve concavely (lordosis). As we age our spines lose the capacity to move into extension more rapidly than we lose flexion, and often the lumbar spine becomes flatter.
Back-bending has its benefits…
The benefits of spinal extension include decreasing tightness in the front of the body (which is related to too much sitting and slumping), better breathing, better posture, and often, more energy. Think about the way we yawn when we’re waking up—we don’t yawn and curl up, we yawn and stretch our spines into extension.
Although active back-bending postures such as Locust (Salabhasana) and Cobra (Bhujangasana) are critical to building strength and mobility in the spine, when it comes to back-bending, I love supported extension over props. In my own practice I’ve found passive back extension extremely helpful for both postural issues and pain relief.
Functionally, backbends can create extension in any of the spinal segments, with the emphasis changing depending on the placement, size and shape of your prop. Supported backbends may also stretch and open tissues that impact the spine indirectly, such as the deep hip flexors and the pectoral muscles on the chest.
Passive back bends are often classified as “yin” yoga. Paul Grilley argues that long, slow, yin stretches allow the muscles to relax enough for the connective tissues to get a good experience of opening and healthy compression. Props provide the ability to stay in the position without discomfort, for long enough to effect tissue change.
Back-bending props are ubiquitous in the yoga community, and include items as simple as a rolled towel to a whole-body-back-bending “bridge.” When choosing your back-bending props, some of the factors you’ll want to consider are price, portability, convenience, ease of use, hygiene, and environmental considerations. Generally, props that conform better to the spine will be more comfortable than props like yoga blocks which don’t. Going too hard or too fast will result in strains and injuries. Another factor to consider is your “end game.” Are you aiming for a mild postural improvement or are you determined to get back to doing full Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)?
There are contraindications to supported back-bending: if you have a spinal condition such as spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, disc disease, stenosis, or if you are more than three months pregnant, you should avoid these postures, or at least get clearance from your specialist before proceeding. Another important bellwether is pain. Often we need to slow down and start very small to allow the body to adapt and adjust. The ability to breathe freely and relax is a must. Tolerance to the position may need to be built up gradually, starting with short periods.
Don’t forget to account for pain or discomfort sourced in other joints. For example, students with shoulder pain may not be able to manage supported backbends without extra support under their shoulder blades/upper arms, and the majority of us may need pillows under our necks to be comfortable.
I’ve been teaching yoga for a long time, and I’ve had relationships with many back-bending props through the years. The following seven are all objects I’ve tried at various points:
Rolled towels, blankets or yoga mats:
Low-cost, easy to clean, and portable, these options are great for most students. The size of the roll is easy to adjust. The down side is the time involved in blanket/towel folding and organizing. Often multiple towels and blankets are required to get everything just right. My friend Jillian recommends the configuration below, which she discovered in Richard Rosen’s Pranayama book:
Big cotton or barley-stuffed bolsters: These are everywhere for a reason. They are comfortable, firm, large enough to provide a satisfying stretch, and come with washable covers. The down side is that they’re expensive, unwieldy to store, and hard to tote around.
Pool noodles or foam rollers: I like to play around with these because they are cheap, portable, and you can cut them up or otherwise alter them. They can be a little too firm for some situations and they are neither environmentally friendly, nor particularly hygienic, but if you can’t afford the other options, they fill a gap.
Soft rubber balls: Usually you can find inflatable balls in any department store, but my personal favourite is the Coregeous ball designed by Jill Miller. The Coregeous ball is soft, pliable and can be made larger or smaller depending on how much air you put in it. Although Miller designed it for fascial massage, I often use them for supported back-bending. They are easy to clean, fun to roll around on, and can be moved up and down the length of the spine with ease. The down side: sometimes students find them too large, and if you want to carry them around inflated they’re a bit unwieldy. Latex allergies may also be an issue.
Pilates balls and styrofoam arcs: I love recommending these to students who want to work towards wheel and who don’t have any issues with their joints because they allow for a deeper stretch in the shoulders and the hips. The arcs are firm and come in handy for a variety of other exercises. Portability is an issue and the size can be too aggressive for beginners.
Wooden back benders: If you Google back-bending props chances are you will find a huge assortment of wooden props. I first fell in love with a wooden back bender called the Back Bridge at a yoga show in Toronto. The model I purchased came in three sizes, and frankly was aesthetically beautiful. I used it myself for years and my husband found it helped his back pain too. My only issue was that because it’s so firm, it’s difficult to get on and off of, and was too aggressive for most of my students. I also got pretentious and decided to try out “Level Three” when I found it at a local studio. I had to go to physio to recover from that error in judgment.
The Ten Minute Cushion: This is my current favourite, and full disclosure: I sell them at my little studio. I love the contour of this cushion and it comes in two sizes (small and regular) and two textures (regular and soft). They are inexpensive, portable, have a washable cover, and provide a gentle traction to the lumbar area. I usually throw mine in my suitcase when I’m travelling. The only downside is that they’re made of foam, so not as environmentally sustainable as wood.
There are a huge number of similar products available online for those who are curious, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I hope these ideas will inspire you to investigate or revisit supported back bends. In our ever-harder quest to stay upright, it’s helpful to have many options in your self-care tool kit.