Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Pam Udell
***This is post number 6 in my backbend series***
A friendly reminder: I want my students and myself to be able to practice yoga for the long haul with as little risk to injury as possible. I know we can’t always prevent this due to genetics, bone structure, and what else we do in daily life, but we can empower ourselves by better understanding our own body and making decisions from a place of knowledge.
I love this quote from Dr. Ray Long who is an orthopedic surgeon and also teaches yoga. “What is the difference between caution and fear?” Participants responded without hesitation that caution stems from knowledge, wisdom, and truth. Conversely, fear and fear-based actions come from a lack of knowledge, wisdom, or truth.” My blog posts are meant to help you gain knowledge and wisdom so that you can empower your practice.
MY TAKE-AWAYS from the above information and how I would incorporate this information into any of my classes is as follows:
Here are a few examples of when I may use Esther’s theory:
- If a student tells me that a PT, Chiropractor or Doctor told them they have a flat lumbar spine.
- If a student has been diagnosed with a bulging disc at L5-S1 and practicing yoga is ok with their doctor, I would have them practice this way in low cobra- assuming there is no pain.
Because I am very much about neutral spine, I do like that Esther focuses on keeping the front ribs over the hip points as much as possible while keeping the inward curve at L5-S1. I keep reading more and more about the importance of moving the backbend up the spine as evenly as possible, and understand the reasoning and importance behind this philosophy.
I’m not sure I agree with primarily taking the backbend at L5-S1 because we generally hear about low back issues at S1, L5 and L4. This is low in the lumbar spine. So, if the wear and tear theory is real, wouldn’t we want to take the backend higher up?
I’m curious if any instructors reading this agree?
However, I have to admit, when I followed Esther’s advice in the cobra version it felt pretty good. I’m not so sure about teaching it in deeper backbends in group classes though. Overall, her method may be best applied/tried in a workshop or a class where the students are used to playing around a little more.
Since reading Esther’s theory I’ve been playing around with really focusing on initiating the backbend at L5-S1 and lifting up and out of the bend from there. I love the idea of practicing this way first in cobra and then having the students feel moving the backbend up the back as they go into deeper poses.
If one or two students tell me it made a difference for them…SCORE! Maybe this cueing will help for a few students- especially the ones that have very little extension in their lower lumbar spine.
In bridge pose: Instead of just going for depth, if you keep the ribs anchored down, focus on lifting at L5-S1, you prevent the deep arch higher in the lumbar and at the very lowest part of the thoracic spine. You then have to really make an effort to open around the heart, which is in the thoracic spine and where a lot of people tend to be tight.
By keeping the ribs from flairing, we’re still getting an opening behind the heart, the intention is to create it a little higher up in the upper part of the the thoracic spine.
- There is no doubt that when I prep a class with hip flexor opening poses, I inevitably hear how much better backbends feel. It is certainly true for me! When we are warmed up and open in our hip flexors, the low back takes less strain. If our hips can’t extend well, then our low back has to extend more to get into the pose.
- Many body workers believe that when we bend from one place all the time we tend to wear away at those specific joints. Makes sense to me! We generally hear in yoga classes how important it is for us to be open in the thoracic spine so the low back doesn’t become overly flexible…especially at one segment of the spine. While the thoracic spine does not have the same range of motion as the lumbar, we can still get some extension which will help ease the load- or not “dump”- in the low back. So I’d most likely not only prep with hip flexor opening but also some kind or upper back opening prior to offering any backbend these days.
- Dhanurasana is a backbend that feels crunchy for my back. Unless I am really open in my hip flexors, I usually stay with shalabhasana/locust pose. Either way, I love how Judith recommends to take your hand to S1 and lifting from there. You don’t have to be familiar or understand how nutation works and her reasoning why it’s safer for the back, because if you use the cue to root down at the sacrum, you naturally will find nutation.
- Every now again I will read or watch something (from a highly trained body worker) that will say to tuck. It used to drive me crazy!!! But, who am I to say with certainty that it is wrong? It seems more mechanically functional to not tuck, and there seems to be good information as to why we shouldn’t, but…I used to wash my blueberries and now they say not to wash wild blueberries!! Sometimes you just need to listen to your gut. I do not tuck but I do wash my blueberries!
- I am getting increasingly less likely to offer full wheel/deep backbends in my classes. However, if you feel completely fine – you know you have a balance between strength and mobility in each segment of your spine, and aren’t concerned about too much laxity in your spine (because maybe it will be proven in 5 years not to be an issue??) – then go for it. But as with any pose, I’d recommend and cue to work up to it slowly and build your strength and flexibility slowly over time so you have less of a chance of becoming too flexible without the strength to balance a deeper backend out. Balance is key!!
IN A NUTSHELL:
- Esther recommends initiating a backbend at L5-S1 and to keep it there primarily no matter the style of the bend (low, med, deep).
- Judith discusses the bend originating from S1, but only so we can locate from where to nutate the pelvis in the backbends prior to extending the spine. She believes that tucking the tailbone in backbends goes against the natural rhythm of the lumbar and sacrum.
- Rachel believes that backbends should be practiced for the goal of breath work and if you’re a “flexible” student, you may want to consider backing off of backbends to avoid overstretching the ligaments.
- Dr. McGill feels that repeated deep backbends can create instability in the spine and potentially wear away at the joints. So we may want to consider limiting the number of deep backbends you do in a week.
In order to stay as neutral as possible, while offering my current opinion on deep backbends:
For students who balance strength and flexibility, I think it’s probably fine, but I see too many students in class pushing deeper and deeper and I worry about injuries in the long run. For several reasons I tend not to teach full wheel in most of my classes anymore.
I know so many students love full wheel, and I’m not ready to tell them not to practice it if they love it and it feels good, but I am ready to stop offering it in big group classes, especially if I have students whom I don’t know well.
Why? Because I suffer from intermittent back “tweakiness” and visited a reputable Orthopedic Dr. about it who practices yoga regularly, and she said she never practices full wheel or camel pose. She believes that too much flexibility in the spine is more harmful than helpful for the majority of us. The idea of too much flexibility in the spine is something to take into consideration.
I know some of you feel great in deep backbends and may never have issues; however, I’m really beginning to question practicing deep backbends. I know, I know.
I shouldn’t be a fear monger, but, hello…I cannot in good faith keep offering something I believe may be harmful for so many students, especially when I know so many instructors (including myself) who have back issues.
Whether you wash your blueberries or practice deep backbends is up to you, all I ask (and hope you got from this blog) is that you practice from a place of knowledge so you can make the best decisions for your unique body.
And here is a quote from one of my favorite books, The Foundation:
“Healthy spine moves fluidly through a full range of motion at each movable segment, but the spine is not supposed to be extremely flexible. Your hips, shoulders, knees, and ankles are built to hinge; your back is not. For your spine to remain stable, the flexibility at the level of the vertebrae should be minimal.”
More on the authors of this book later when I write a post about strengthening your back. For now, check out my favorite resources you will find a link to the book.
Posts in this series:
- What Washing Blueberries and Doing Backbends Have in Common
- Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Esther Gokhale
- Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Rachel Krentzmen
- Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Judith Hanson Lasater
- Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Dr. Stuart McGill
- Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Pam Udell