The majority of modern people spend a lot of time in a forward-fold, whether they realize it or not. When sitting at a desk or in a car, people naturally tend to round forward through their torsos and shoulders. This slumping increases tightness in muscles across the front of the chest, shoulders, and neck. While most people recognize the need to undo the monotony of sitting through exercising regularly and taking short breaks for general movement, they seldom do any movement specifically to counteract their persistent forward folding. The energizing solution here is to add backbends into your daily routine. Even one can make a difference!
Backbends are like hip openers in that you can often feel an immediate change in your body after exiting the posture. After a backbend like wheel pose, the front of your chest suddenly feels more spacious. Lots of little muscle fibers suddenly have more room! Breathing may feel deeper and easier. Backbends open up the front of the body and for this reason are often also called “heart openers.” In this regard, they work well to ward off the last of these winter woes, which may have us otherwise assuming a more protective forward-folding huddle. Shake off the early spring chill and energize your body by incorporating one of the following backbends into your day:
1. Backbend by laying off the edge of your bed.
Say you’ve gotten to the end of your day and forgotten to backbend; here’s one to practice which lets you stay warm under the covers. While face-up, drape your upper body off one side of your bed, gently reaching fingers towards the floor. Breathe and relax.
2. Bridge pose.
Begin at seated; plant both feet on the mat before you. Check that outer edges of your feet are parallel (i.e. feet are slightly pigeon-toed). Beginning this way may help your knees feel more comfortable in the eventual backbend. Roll yourself down to your mat, keeping knees bent and feet solidly planted. Now press the small of your back down into the mat to begin picking your hips up. Gently roll up bottom to top of your spine. Tuck shoulder blades under your back and clasp palms under your body. Press clasped palms into the floor in order to press your hips up. Round up in all directions; not only are you pressing hips to the sky, you’re also pressing your chest towards your chin. Pause for 5-10 breaths here, then roll back down, top to bottom of your spine. Roll back up for a second backbend. In this one, send one foot then the other towards the sky—if trying this variation, be sure to keep hips up while reaching through the extended leg.
3. Restorative bridge pose.
This posture works great after an active bridge pose. Begin just as in our previous pose, but now place a yoga block just under your sacrum. (The sacrum is lower than your lower back. Find the big bones right above your hips. You should feel very supported with the block here.) Tuck shoulder blades under your back and let palms rest up towards the sky. Close your eyes and let your whole body rest down, rather than sending anything up. Pause here for a full minute. Once you are more comfortable in backbends, keep in mind that you can flip your yoga block to a higher level, or stack two yoga blocks (set on their lowest level) on top of each other.
4. Backbend at the wall.
This is an excellent way to learn how to drop back into wheel pose from standing. Be sure to start at least 3 feet away from the wall. (You will know if you’re too close as you start to walk your hands down the wall. If this is the case, you can always walk your feet farther away from the wall as you go too.) Face away from the wall, inhale to reach tall through your arms and fingertips. Exhale as you begin to lean back—remember your gaze has to travel backwards too. This won’t work if you keep looking forward. Keep pressing strongly through your feet. Once your palms are planted on the wall, firmly press into your hands and “walk” them down the wall as far as is comfortable, perhaps ending up in a wheel pose at the wall. Even if you are very comfortable in wheel, wheel pose at the wall is a great way to get a little deeper into the pose. Press your chest into the wall, and continue to breathe. Walk your hands back up the wall to exit the pose.
Take a moment to scan your body after your backbend and see how you feel. Enjoy the feeling of expansion in your chest, and thank yourself for taking a little time out of your day to backbend.
Only a few poses are on my mental checklist of ones to do daily: these typically include both pigeon pose and wheel. I need that daily urdhva dhanurasana! There's nothing like the first few moments after exiting wheel to show you how tight you really were through the front of your body.
I also try to do a wheel pose before every race--I swear this helps me to breathe better. Wishing you all happy backbends and better breathing for faster, happier runs.