Bending over backwards: how to strengthen your spine
As a corporate yoga teacher the majority of my students spend a lot of their time sitting at their desks hunched over a keyboard, and what many seem to have in common are tight hips and sore lower backs. In this blog we will consider back ache and I'll explain how to avoid it by using yoga to improve your posture and strengthen your spine.
Yoga postures that really work to build back stretch are backbends. Now these are daunting for many people, mostly because they conjure up images like this:
Now our friend here is obviously very flexible and bendy in the back area, and that's great for her but makes the average corporate yogi scream and run a mile. But honestly my friends; backbends don't have to be that extreme. The idea is to gently increase the range of motion in your spine and to move it in the opposite direction to which it becomes accustomed: rounded forward over your desk....
So here is our simple guide to bending backwards;
1. Warm up. Back bends are intense postures that should be done later in the class once your spine is warmed up. This will a) make the postures easier to transition in to and b) prevent a back injury. Really lovely spinal warm up postures are Bidalasana (Cat Cow), Bhujangasana (cobra) followed by Salabasana (locust) and a gentle seated twist.
2. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or Bridge Pose. This is the perfect beginners back bend - a sweet neck release that opens the chest and stretches the spine. Lie on your back with your knees bent, soles of the feet on the mat. Move your feet close to your buttocks - you should be able to lightly brush the backs of your heels with your fingertips - then move them forward a few centimetres. Inhale drawing your navel to your spine, then exhale to slowly lift your hips towards the sky. Press your arms onto the mat to lift through the shoulders, the draw your shoulder blades together and clasp your hands underneath your elevated buttocks with the little fingers pressing into the floor. Hold for up to a minute, then release the hands, untuck the shoulder blades then slowly roll down to the mat one vertebrae at a time. Windscreen wiper your bent knees from side to side to release through the lower back.
3. Dhanurasana or Bow Pose. Named after the shape that your body makes whilst in the posture, this pose has some serious benefits including strengthening the back and abs, toning the arms, stimulation of the reproductive organs AND it's a stress-buster. Lie on your stomach with your arms down by either side, forehead to the mat and your feet hip width apart. Bend your knees and take a hold of your ankles with your hands then as you inhale pull your legs up and back whilst lifting your chest off the floor. Keep your gaze straight ahead and breathe deeply to relax into the posture. Be careful not to over-stretch here; your body should be taught but still relaxed. Hold for 10-15 breaths, then exhale to lower your legs and chest to the floor, releasing your ankles.
4. Natarajasana or Lord of the Dance Pose. Even the name of this pose is awesome! Have fun with your backbends whilst also testing your balance. This is definitely an advanced posture and should be practiced later in the class after your warm-up poses (see number 1). Begin standing in Tadasana or mountain pose; big toes touching, heels slightly apart, micro-bend in your knees, shoulders back and down with your fingers engaged, crown of the head reaching towards the ceiling. Shift your weight to your left foot and bend the right knee backwards, taking a hold of the inside of the right ankle. Pause, breathe, find your balance. Inhale, then exhale to pull your right foot further up whilst simultaneously lifting your left arm to the sky and reaching forward.
5. Full Wheel. This is a strong posture so listen carefully. Set up for this backbend the same way as in bridge pose (see number 2); lie on your back with your knees bent, soles of your feet on the floor. Bend your arms up and back to place your hands next to your ears, fingers facing towards your shoulders. Keeping your elbows centred, inhale and start to lift your hips to the sky, pushing the earth away with your hands and straightening your arms. Keep your knees facing forward (they sometimes have a tendency to splay outwards) and also keep the glutes relaxed and your gaze between your hands. To release from the pose tuck your chin to your chest and slowly lower down to the earth, landing on your upper back as opposed to your head. Gently windscreen-wiper your knees from side to side.
So there you have it, some easy and then some more advanced back bends to help strengthen you back.