How good is yoga? Like, really. It’s truly one of the best medicines out there for the mind, body, and heart. I mean, I know I’m a little biased given the nature of my work, and lifestyle. But, c’mon, it’s hard to argue with the immense benefits possible from a regular yoga practice.
Now, if you’re at all familiar with my style as a yoga teacher, then you know I love me a good backbend! And, trust me, I get that that might sound off-putting to people- because, generally, backbends are intimidating to many people. So, if you’re someone who feels a little flutter of butterflies when you hear the word “backbends,” then just know you’re not alone. This is totally normal.
While backbends might be scary for newcomers and seasoned practitioners, alike- they do have incredible benefits that your body will love if you start to incorporate them in a gentle way. For instance, they help to strengthen and tonify the legs, the low core, and the back body. Yoga backbends also help to open the quadriceps, hip flexors, shoulders, and chest.
This post will outline 9 of my favorite backbends that you can start to incorporate into your practice in a safe and meaningful way, so that you can start reaping those physical benefits today!
7 Backbend Yoga Poses
The most important thing I want you to understand about backbends is that they’re not meant to hurt. Actually, no yoga poses are meant to hurt you. There’s a difference between challenge, and pain.
So, if you’re feeling pain from your backbends, chances are you’re lacking certain activations, or your alignment is a little wonky. In that case, it’s really helpful to ask a yoga teacher in person to give you some pointers specific to you and your body’s needs, rather than generalized information.
Backbend Yoga Poses For Beginners
Even if you’re no longer a beginner yogi, you can still benefit from foundational backbends. Remember, these are the building blocks to the practice, and the building blocks to your more advanced backbend practice down the line. Plus, we love opening the heart space regardless of the level of each pose.
Cobra pose is one that can be done a variety of ways, but let’s start with the basics in low cobra. Lie flat on your belly, with your feet extended behind you at hip width distance (or wider if you have low back pain). Toes are untucked, and hands are placed under your shoulders with your forehead on the mat. Press a lot into your feet so that your kneecaps lift off the ground, and a little- or not at all- into your hands to lift your chest off the mat. Keep your gaze slightly down so that your neck is long, and keep your face soft.
This is a great post to start building strength in the back body, as you’ll feel all of the muscles around your spine tighten and hug in the same way your abs do in an abdominal crunch. Strengthening the back body by calling on the strength of the legs is a great place to start in your backbending practice.
You’ll continue lying on your belly with your forehead down, your legs long behind you, and toes untucked. Press your forearms onto the mat, so that your elbows are under your shoulders, and your chest lifts up. Keep your forearms parallel, and fan your fingers nice and wide, while keeping your gaze forward. It’s important here to spike gently into your public bone to find length in the low back, and then energetically draw your elbows back towards your toenails to pump your heart through the center of your chest.
This pose offers many benefits of backbends, such as opening the chest and shoulders, while maintaining activation in the legs. Sphinx is a great yoga pose to target the upper body, through the support of the lower body. For more sensation, you can press into the hands to make the arms straight.
Come onto all fours in table top, and with your inhale find cow pose by dipping your belly low, and lifting your tailbone and gaze high. Keep breathing here. You’ll create a smile shape with your spine, with the tilt of the pelvis being the driving force of the posture. Lower your eyebrows to soften your face, even as you gaze up.
Cow pose is a backbend pose you’ll find in just about every yoga class imaginable. Usually it’s paired with Cat pose, and they’re known together as Cat/Cow. You’ll likely find Cat/Cow at the beginning of a class as a warm up, as both shapes are the perfect combination for waking up the spine in a gentle way.
Intermediate Backbend Yoga Poses
As your yoga practice progresses, so will your backbends. Remember, backbend poses are all about opening the front body, and strengthening the back body. These yoga poses will also emphasize the strength of the legs to open the chest and shoulders. Maintaining a lift up and out of the low belly will also help to reduce crunchiness in the low back, which is a common experience for many people when they’re backbending.
If you’re feeling that dump and collapse into the low back, that’s a sign that you need to work on lengthening the spine, and maintaining the integrity of core activation through strong legs.
Upward Facing Dog
Start lying on your belly like you’re setting up for low cobra. With an inhale, press into your hands and feet to lift your chest of the mat. Press so much into your hands and feet that you can lift your hips and thighs off of the mat. Keep the gaze forward, and keep breathing. If it’s too much, lower your hips and thighs down, to come into High Cobra, instead.
Backbends open the frontline of the body, which is something you’ll feel intensely in upward facing dog. If it feels crunchy in the low back, that might be a sign to press more into your feet to charge up the legs- or to lower the hips and thighs down altogether.
Come into kneeling on your knees with your hips lifted up and over your knees, and shoulders over your hips. Tuck your toes, and scoop your tailbone underneath you right away to turn on your inner thighs and low belly. Place your hands to your low back, like you’re sliding them into jean pockets, and hug your elbows together behind your heart. Take an inhale to lift your chest towards the sky, and as you exhale squeeze your glutes to gently press your hips forward.
You can stay right here in a supported version of Camel pose, or you can continue to use the breath to take you deeper- creating an equal lift of the chest, and press forward with the hips until your hands reach behind you for your heels. Keep the chin tucked if you have a sensitive neck, or lower your gaze back behind you to open your throat. Like all yoga backbends, make sure you can breathe where you land, as the tendency is to clench and stop breathing.
Lie on your belly, like you’re setting up for Low Cobra. Bend your knees to draw your heels towards your glutes, then reach behind you to grab your outer ankles with your hands. Keep your forehead on the ground to start, as you gently press your pubic bone into the mat. Take an inhale to kick your heels skyward, utilizing the kick of the heels to lift and open the chest.
Your chest and thighs are lifted off the mat in full bow pose, but if it’s too much, you can always keep your thighs on the ground, and draw your heels BACK away from you hips- rather than kicking them HIGH. Both options are Bow pose, and both options work wonders in strengthening the legs to open the chest and shoulders.
Advanced Backbend Yoga Poses
Advanced backbend yoga poses can be intense. Plain and simple. There’s a reason why backbends come at the end of most traditional sequences- because you really need the entire sequence to prepare the body for this big taaa-daaa moment towards the end.
Backbends are really a full body experience. While most people mistake backbends to only require spine flexibility, you’ve now learned that there’s a whole lot more going on other than openness in the spine. Make sure you have a strong backbend practice before trying on these more advanced options.
Lie on your back, bend your knees to plant your feet on the mat at hip width distance. Knees point skyward, and you can can graze your heels with your fingertips. Now, place the hands by your ears with the palms facing down, and fingers pointing towards your shoulders- so now your elbows are also bent skyward. Use an inhale to press deeply into your hands and feet, and rock onto the crown of your head first. Keep breathing here, and hug in your knees and elbows to midline if they’re fanning out to the side.
You can stay here, or use another inhale to press deeply into the hands and feet to lift your hips skyward, and work the arms towards straight. Press a lot into your feet to drive the hips up, and keep squeezing your glutes. Make sure you can breathe where you land.
Single Leg Wheel Pose
You’ll come into Wheel pose first, use the same instructions as above. From Wheel pose, walk one foot towards the center of your mat, and press A LOT into that foot in the center. Use an inhale to lift your other foot off the mat, and hug your knee in towards your chest, or point it skyward.
You can stay right there, or extend the lifted leg to point the toes directly above you. If you extend the floating leg, make sure it’s super active! Like, even the toes. The more active the floating leg is, the lighter it will feel above you.
Start in Wheel pose, again. From Wheel pose, walk your feet out in front of you, towards a straight leg version of Wheel. It’s okay if your legs don’t straighten all the way. Now, press a lot into your feet, and take a full breath in to prepare by driving your hips skyward and squeezing your glutes and shoulder blades on your back body. With your exhale find Alien by imagining your taking a seat with your bum onto a chair. Keep breathing.
This is an intense double backbend by adding the sit down motion with the hips. Remember to continually call on the strength of the legs and back body to safely open the chest and front line. And, as with all poses, make sure you’re breathing- otherwise, you’re just doing gymnastics!
There you have it, my friends. You’re ready to start your backbending practice today at any level. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.
For more backbending, check out my Heart Medicine bundle series to backbend safely with me every day.