There are eight students in the class, nearly all of them with a back issue—from scoliosis to fused vertebrae to pinched nerves to inexplicable spasms—and they are getting ready to do back bends. Julie Brandwein, their teacher for the hour-long back care class at Yoga Union Center for Backcare and Scoliosis instructs them to sit up tall and imagine a pencil running from one ear to another. “Tip your head forward from that place,” she tells them—rather than from the neck or the cervical spine. From the beginning of class, Brandwein, who also teaches at Yogasana in Brooklyn, wants her students to understand that while the name “back bend” implies a bending of the back, it’s really a lengthening of the spine and strengthening of the supporting muscles that needs to happen.
Here are five common mistakes found in back bending and how to avoid them:
Bending at your spine Most people are too short in the back of their body due to tight muscles including the hamstrings, lower back and neck and too long in the front of their body, says Jonathan FitzGordon, a New York City-based yoga teacher and founder of The FitzGordon Method Core Walking Program. “People are not learning how to get out of that shortness. Instead they are working into it,” he says. Take for example, a pose like cobra, in which students often think the objective is to lift their torso as high off the matt as possible, which can lead to compression of the lower back. Instead of bending from your lumbar spine, you want to initiate a pose like cobra or salabhasana from the tailbone, lengthening it away from the crown of the head to help create space in the back in order to bend. And rather than sinking the weight into the lumbar spine, it’s important to use the arms by engaging your latissimus dorsi, the only muscle in the body that connects the arms to the spine and the pelvis, says FitzGordon. “A bad backbend to me moves from the lumbar to the crown and good back bend moves from the tailbone to the crown,” he says.
Forgetting your core Your core—the muscles surrounding your abdomen—are critical throughout your asana practice, yet students often don’t firm their bellies or lift the pelvic floor when working into a backbend. Pena, who is known for his ease at doing backbends, encourages students to activate their deepest abdominal muscles to provide support when going into a pose like full wheel. Activating the core when moving into a back bend, creates a feeling in the front body like a tight drum, says Pena. “By lengthening the breast bone away from the pubic bone, my deepest abs are going to draw in toward the spine and prevent the spine from collapsing further,” he says.
Jutting your head forward Another postural habit that can become problematic when brought into a backbend is jutting the head forward, says Brandwein. Lengthening the neck too far forward—a habit that comes from reaching our necks toward the computer screen and hunching our shoulders—often means there is tightness in the upper body and weakness in the muscles of the back. “When you have rounded shoulders, those muscles tend to be over-lengthened,” says Brandwein. Backbends like cobra, upward facing dog or camel pose can be a powerful way to work out of this postural tendency, but it’s important to firm the upper back muscles and work on stretching and opening the front of the chest, says Brandwein.
Squeezing your glutes To help get into a deeper back bend, students will often squeeze their glute muscles. But it’s easy to overdo that tightening action and contract the deeper external rotator muscles located under the glutes. This will cause your knees to roll out and can strain your deep rotator muscles. Because the pelvis is unable to tilt back as a result of your external rotators contracting, more of the work is once again brought into the lower back. That doesn’t mean you should let your glutes go slack in a back bend. Think of firming rather than squeezing the muscles of the buttocks, says Brandwein, a distinction that’s subtle, but important to protect your lower back.
Throwing your head back Open up Light On Yoga and you’ll find a photo of B. K. S. Iyengar with his head flung back in a cobra pose, his chin pointing up to the ceiling. “A lot of yoga images in magazines and advertising have created this myth that when you do a back bend, your hair is going to flow down your back and your head is going to go back in wild abandon,” says Deborah Wolk, Co-Founder of Yoga Union Center for Backcare. But most students don’t have the agility of a yogi like Iyengar, warns Wolk. As a result, dropping the head back can crunch the cervical processes, which are delicate and prone to injury. Teaching students not to copy the images they see in books and magazine is challenging for many teachers. “We have to work with the integrity of connecting rather than just copying the shape,” says Genny Kapuler, who teaches at the Iyengar Institute and at her private studio in Soho. “You want the cervical spine from the crown of the head to the tail to be one line like calligraphy,” she says. “You don’t want that line to be broken.”