Moving into exploration of the spine is a natural progression from last week sequence of the midline. The spine runs along our midline, and gives us a physical element to work towards when ‘drawing into the midline’ in our practice. Maintaining awareness of the midline when practicing backbends, reminds us to exert equal effort right and left, and gives a stable structure for the front body to expand and the back body to curve with.

The spine supports the body against gravity, facilitates movement of the torso, and protects the spinal cord. An understanding of the four natural curves of your back helps you to access safer alignment in your asana. Try standing in Tadasana/Mountain and trace the four curves of your back – starting with the concave curve at the back of your neck/cervical (115 degree range of motion); moving down to the convex curve of your upper back/thoracic (70 degree range of motion); diping again into the concave of your lower back/lumbar (95 degree range of motion); and finally the convex curve of the fused tailbone/sacral. Now take Ardha Uttanasana/Half Forward Fold with your hands on your shins, and look to find these same four natural curves of your spine as you reach through the tip of your crown. Often when we fold forward we lose our two lovely concave curves of our cervical and lumbar spine. These two curves enable the most range of motion in the spine, which makes them more susceptible to injury. The spine is involved in every asana with either flexion, extension or rotation. Yoga lengthens, strengthens and promotes good interstitial fluid health of the spine.

Backbends stimulate the nervous system, aid digestion, ease stress, tension, anxiety and depression. They also expand and breath, promoting healthy lung capacity and ease symptoms of asthma and sleep apnea. You’ll notice the increased energy throughout the room in a backbend focused yoga class. We spend a lot of our day hunched forward -  backbends stretch, expand and open the heart centre.  The mind follows the physical, and becomes open and energised too.

The above sequence warm up the spine with lateral bends, rotations and contraction backbends. It also works on lengthening the hip flexors and psoas muscle. Tight hip flexors prevent the posterior (backwards) tilt of the pelvis, restricting backbends and bringing increased flexion and pressure into the lower back. Click this link to get a full list of backbends.

Lateral bends are a lovely, gentle way to access the concept of lengthening up through the spine to find space between the vertebra for your backbends. Before you do the backbending sequence, try the lateral bends sequence below. Reach up tall through the spine to the tip of the crown before each lateral bend. There is lots of hidden lateral bends in our practice that you may not even notice – such as Viparita Virabhadrasana/Reverse Warrior, Parsvakonasana/Extended Side Angle and Trikonasana/Triangle – which are all great asana to take warm up the spine before a backbend peak pose.

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Ruth Delahunty Yogaru