Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Esther Gokhale
***This is post number 2 in my backbend series***
Esther Gokhale: “The posture guru of Silicon Valley”
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.
Esther Gokhale studied biochemistry at Harvard and Princeton and eventually acupuncture in San Francisco. She is the author of 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back, and has taught her method at Google, Facebook, and many other corporations as well being a presenter at TED. In May 2013, The New York Times gave Esther the title of “The Posture Guru of Silicon Valley”.
It certainly sounds like she knows her stuff! But, in my opinion, it’s always a good idea to read the comments at the end of any blog post. IF YOU’RE A YOGA INSTRUCTOR, PLEASE TIME TO READ READER COMMENTS!
Before I respond and simplify what she is saying, I want to add a few of the comments that readers posted on her site.
Here’s just a few of the many of the positive feedback comments:
“Thank you for the wonderful article Esther. If I am understanding this correctly, for many of us the constraint is actually in the hip flexors which are tight and therefore preventing the extension from occurring where it needs to be, in the front pelvis — not in the lower ribs. Interestingly in the Iyengar school they are often referred to not as “backbends” but instead as “front extensions”
“This is great info! I have a herniated disc at L5-S1 but these days most of my pain comes from my thoracic being essentially locked up.”
“Absolutely excellent. Taking the bend at L5-S1 made all the difference to me in my backbending practice. Thank you for making this point crystal clear in this article, and with these images.”
And then I saw this:
I have been following your blog posts for a while and I really respect your work and your insights. However, I have to say this one renders disservice rather than shedding light on the subject of backbending. Some of the information you’re sharing here is just wrong, and I think it is due to the fact that your approach comes rather from an intellectual standpoint, instead of the perspective of someone who actually has physical experience of backbending in their body.
I am a contemporary dancer and Stott Pilates instructor with experience in basic contortion training and I can assure you – all we do not need is to extend exclusively from L5-S1. Much on the contrary – you need extension throughout the whole of your spine, as too much movement on a single area is what will definitely lead to injury. In fact I just took the first module of a Stretching Certification program led by a former Cirque du Soleil contortion coach with more than 20 years of experience in leading artists and athletes to those extreme levels of back extension, and she was adamant – you do want the arch to happen from upper back and shoulders, aiming to maintain lower back as neutral as possible.
You are using contortion to make your point here, but you are tricked by the illusion in the picture and you’re building your argument on a pure visual impression, rather than experience in the discipline and practice. The yogini you’ve stated as bending unhealthily, is in fact bending rather healthily. Stott Pilates will also highly encourage extension happening from thoracic spine, rather than lumbar.
So, I don’t mean to be rude, but I would encourage you to look for information from people who have actual experience in the field, rather than talking about something you don’t have practical knowledge of, eventually leading to misinformation.”
Wow, right? Ok, here’s what all these comments above are about. My comments are the bullet items.
WHAT ESTHER SAYS:
1. “Not all backbends are created equal. Healthy backbends happen at the lowest lumbar level (L5-S1); unhealthy backbends happen higher up in the lumbar spine” and “In most literature there is rarely a distinction made between the upper and lower lumbar curve.”
- I have to say, this description threw me for a loop. I have never read or heard anyone deciphering the lower lumbar curve from the upper. To find your L5-S1 while standing, take your thumbs, one on each side of the low back on the bony knobs/bony protuberances (PSIS) on your low back- and then slide your fingers toward each other horizontally to the middle of your back and move them down slightly. This is about where your L5-S1 is (refer to photos below). Essentially what Esther is saying is that we should be bending back/extending when we practice a backbend from the spot where your thumbs meet above and limiting it higher up.
- Her description of learning a healthy backbend initially is to practice an “infant cobra,” lifting only a couple inches off the floor while keeping your ribs anchored down, neck aligned with the spine and the bend coming at the lowest part of the lumbar spine…L5-S1.
2. “Higher up in the lumbar spine, repeated, sustained or extreme extension results in wear and tear and injury in the related discs and vertebrae.”
- I believe the point she is trying to make is that when we bend from the same place over and over it can create wear and tear. She obviously believes that most people backbend from higher up the lumbar spine, which would be just below the lowest ribs.
3. “If you backbend at L5-S1 and strongly engage your rib anchor muscles, the front lower border of your ribcage will not protrude, but rather remain flush with your torso. A bend higher in the lumbar spine will result in the ribs protruding visibly from the contour of the abdomen.”
- You may want to come down on your belly for this: Place one of your thumbs at L5-S1 (look above on how to find) and begin to lift your chest up just a little bit. You should feel your hips getting a little heavier when you do this. Pause for a moment, and right where your thumb is at L5-S1, anchor down a bit more. Once you feel where that is, place both hands next to chest and lift into a baby cobra. Keep your ribs on the ground and try to keep the backbend lower down (L5-S1) and get length through the rest of the spine.
4. In her blog from 2016 she expresses that backbending in the shower to avoid shampoo coming into our eyes is enough of a backbend to keep us flexible and healthy. Let’s hear a yippee yi yay for that!!
- For me this means it’s an example of gentle extension through the whole spine, not just the neck, and this moderate backbend is enough of a bend to keep our spine mobile and healthy.
If you want to see her Ted talk, click here.
Posts in this series:
- Backbends – Part 1: What Washing Blueberries and Doing Backbends Have in Common
- Backbends – Part 2: Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Esther Gokhale
- Backbends – Part 3: Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Rachel Krentzmen
- Backbends – Part 4: Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Judith Hanson Lasater
- Backbends – Part 5: Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Dr. Stuart McGill
- Backbends – Part 6: Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Pam Udell