Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Dr. Stuart McGill

by | Mar 16, 2018 | 0 comments

***This is post number 5 in my backbend series***

Dr. McGill is a professor at U of Waterloo, has over 240 peer reviewed scientific journal papers, and has worked with governments, corporations, legal experts, medical groups and elite athletes and teams from around the world with issues in back pain and rehabilitation.

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.



Dr. Stewart McGill is an expert on the back and this link is an interview of his available on YouTube.

( I am sharing this video not because i think we should be diagnosing back pain (we shouldn’t) but, I do believe we should continue to educate ourselves about back pain because it is so prevalent.

You’ll get a better understanding of micro movements in the back and an understanding of how to create stability/stiffness in the core and how much according to Dr. Mcgill.

You’ll also hear why he is skeptical of transverse abdominis helping to protect the back. While this video isn’t about backbends, I feel it helps us to understand the differences in our bodies.)

The interviewer said:

“I think I mentioned in one of my blogs that I spoke with Stuart McGill by email after reading his study showing that repeated extension stretches sometimes helped reverse posterior disc nucleus migration. I asked him if that meant he was advocating those stretches, and he said no because he thought repeated end range extension stretches might lead to facet joint irritation/arthritis. Instead, he advocated just laying prone propped up on one’s elbows at most and holding that position static for 10-15 minutes (as opposed to the McKenzie floppy push-up where you repeatedly extend all the way up on outstretched arms as in a “high” cobra). This way, you would hopefully get the benefits of extension with regard to the discs without the repeated facet joint trauma.”


  • To be clear, Stuart is discussing someone who has a herniated disc that is causing pain. (Many of us have bulging/herniated discs with no pain.)
  • My take-away from his interview is he believes, “…repeated end range extension might lead to facet joint irritation/arthritis” so he wouldn’t recommend repeated deep extension for the average student  because doing so may lead to facet joint irritation (joints between the vertebrae) and arthritis (wear and tear of joints leading to inflammation and eventually degeneration). Based on this information, I’m thinking he would not recommend full wheel, camel, updog, which are examples of deeper backbends as shown below



  • But, when someone is having a flare up of pain from a bulging or herniated disc, he recommends a pose (which he calls a stretch) such as sphinx as long as there is no pain associated with it.


  • This makes sense because everything I’ve read and know suggests it is common in physical therapy for anyone who has a bulging disc to do gentle backbends, this is assuming the bulge is in the lumbar area and there is no pain associated with these movements. Bridge pose, cobra, sphinx, salabhasana are all examples of moderate backbends and believed by most to be an important part of movement and the health of the spine.



  • I am not saying that no one should practice deep backbends. I do believe that when someone is balanced in strength and flexibility it may be fine. So, if you are someone who has some back pain while doing a deep backbend, you should be aware of potentially causing some unneeded wear and tear in the facet joints of your back by doing them. And even if you don’t have pain, being aware of the potential degeneration and subsequent pain is important. I have read over and over that we can create damage and may not feel it until it’s too late. Of course there are students who may never have this problem, but I believe it is something to be aware of.
  • We know that awareness is key in any practice. While there is some slight discrepancies among the different sources, there’s generally an overall average recommendation and my research for backbends suggests: Too much flexibility can be destabilizing for the spine in many people.  Knowing this, I take the information, practice each suggestion on my own body and see what feels best for me. I then (may/may not) offer it in class as an option based on what my intention is for class that day.

Are you ready to wrap this series up? Click here to read my final thoughts.

Posts in this series:


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