Getting a energy fix on the mat - yoga blog 27 November 

I have to admit that I often find myself reluctant to do backbends, other than the ‘easier’ ones such as bridge and cobra. Despite their many benefits – great for sounded shoulders (blame years of desk work) and poor posture – they always feel more of a challenge than other asanas. So it came as a bit of a shock last weekend that I hadn’t noticed when I signed up for a workshop with one of Oxford’s most experienced teachers Sue Pennington, that the theme for the day was, well, backbends.

 Why do backbends?

If you think about it, there are few occasions, changing lightbulbs apart, when we need to. But the human spine is an amazing thing, and has the ability to extend back as well as forward. Taking it safely through its entire range of movement is one way of keeping the spinal column healthy and flexible. In addition, backbends help open up the shoulders and chest, and encourage deeper breathing. 

 Are there other affects?

A backbend session can leave us feeling inspired and energised. Some of the stronger backbends, such as Camel and Bow, can also work on a deeper emotional level. By opening up the front of the body, they can tap in to stored feelings, such as love or sadness – and on occasion even make us feel a little vulnerable.

 Is it easy to hurt myself doing backbends?

These poses place strong demands upon the most vulnerable segment of the spine—the lumbar region. Like all yoga asanas, backbends should follow a gentle warm up and stretching sequence. Beware of pushing into the lumbar, and try and focus on extending the whole of the spinal column into a curve. 

 What can I do to practise safely?

Work with the breath, and use your warm up to become aware of how your body is moving and feeling. Good preparation might include cat, downward dog, lunges and salute to the sun. Stretch the front thighs by sitting kneeling or in Hero Pose, and work on opening up the shoulders. Think of using your internal core to ensure you are not over straining the back muscles. Think about bringing the spine back into a neutral position afterwards in poses such as child and dog.

 What is mula bandha?

Traditional hatha yoga practice includes the use of ‘locks’ including mula bandha, or root lock. This is anatomically equivalent to the muscles of the pelvic floor at the perineum (the region between the anus and the urethra). You can gently draw this area of muscle upward as you lift into a backbend. The subtle action of mula bandha gives a toning and inner lift to the muscles of the pelvic floor, adding core strength and support from within.

Always think mindfully and practise with softness, and end your practice with relaxation. And, by the way, I did challenge myself at the workshop, and even went up into Wheel with Sue’s assistance. And the rest of the weekend was a dream.