Where should we be bending from and how far in Backbends? Opinion from Rachel Krentzmen

by | Mar 16, 2018 | 0 comments

***This is post number 3 in my backbend series***

What a Physical Therapist who specializes in back care has to say about backbends.

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.


Rachel is a Physical therapist and yoga instructor who specializes in back pain. She emphasizes the importance in daily life of keeping our lumbar curve (low back slight inward curve) for the health of the spine.


1. “In optimal alignment, the lumbar spine should rest in a slight arch (lumbar lordosis), to properly carry the body weight and prevent low back issues.  When we lose the normal curve due to poor posture or frequent forward bending, there is an increased risk of low back pain, disc injuries and muscle spasm.”

  • This is one of the reasons so many body workers believe backbending/extension to be so important. It helps us to keep the natural curve in our low back. EVERYTHING I read, and every physical therapist, chiropractor and well respected trainer I talk to, emphasize the importance of the lumbar curve. Click here to read about YogaTone 360 which is based on neutral spine.


2. “Individuals who have difficulty in backbends can be categorized into two main groups: those with tight muscles and ligaments and those who are naturally loose and highly flexible.  In every body, there is a dance between the qualities of stability and flexibility in the musculoskeletal system.

There is a myth that being more flexible is a sign of better physical health, however, the more flexible a person is, the more prone their ligaments are to injury in Yoga because they lack stability. Conversely, those who are stiff are less likely to suffer an injury due to overstretching however, these individuals need to increase their flexibility so the pelvis and spine can move freely and avoid compression during activities of daily living.”

  • As I said before, I consistently hear how flexibility is important. What Rachel points out is when we are overly flexible (some of us naturally have longer ligaments and therefore will find certain poses easier) we need to pay closer attention to finding our strength in the pose. We can do this in a backbend by not going to our end point of flexibility, and instead engaging the core a little and finding more of a backbend higher up the spine in the upper back/thoracic region. There is only so far you can backbend in the thoracic spine due to the anatomy of the spine in that region.


3. “We move where we can. So when we lack mobility in our thoracic spine (chest and rib cage), we tend to bend much more so in our low back where we naturally have more range of motion when it comes to extension/backbending.

  • What I believe Rachel is saying is that that our intention for backbending shouldn’t necessarily be about deep backbending per se, but more about opening our chest and thoracic spine to help limit the movement in the low back.


4. “Backbends are an integral part of any Yoga practice.  The intention for backbends is to open the chest and rib cage in preparation for pranayama (breathwork).”

  • Why does Rachel say that backbends help in preparation for breathwork? When the musculature around the chest is tight, it’s much harder to take a high quality breath. Back extension/backbends will help students who have poor posture and are rounded forward. When we are habitually rounded forward, we end up compressing the diaphragm muscle which makes it not only harder for it to move through its range of motion but also prevents us from taking deep breaths.


5. “Backbends are safe for most individuals (contraindicated for those with spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis) as long as the body is warmed up appropriately and there is close attention paid to proper alignment and actions in each pose.  The beauty of Yoga is that detailed instructions can be given to help one attain ideal alignment so a greater sense of opening is experienced.”

  • As a yoga instructor, while we can’t diagnose, we should know the difference between stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and herniated/bulging discs. Why? Because there are plenty of doctors who have never practiced yoga and think it is just gentle stretching and thus tell their patients to go to yoga.
  • When she mentions “detailed alignment can be given to help the students”, what about when you’ve been taught different alignment than another instructor? Or read an article that describes it differently than you were taught? Do you, as an instructor, correct someone if their feet are too far out in a backbend? If so, do you understand why? Or why it may be beneficial for some? Or why the latest research is showing that by changing the angle and the force at which we apply load to a muscle is beneficial? Thank you Jules Mitchell for that last one! (more on her later in a future blog post). Your “detailed alignment” may be different than Rachel’s, which is ok, just know why you’re using certain cues and know your intentions when correcting a student.

By now you’re maybe getting the idea….so Heeeere’s Judith...Judith is a long time instructor, P.T., and is highly respected.


Posts in this series:


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