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Tag Archives: backbends

Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

QUESTION
Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles when backbending because this will compress the sacrum and lower back. Others say that it’s essential to use the glutes in backbends. What do you recommend?

ANSWER
First, let’s acknowledge that different students may benefit from slightly different actions in any given posture. So, the most accurate way to answer this question is to say that most students will benefit from engaging their glutes in most backbends. Here’s why:

THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY

The gluteal family is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. When teachers talk about engaging the “glutes” in backbends, they’re referring to the gluteus maximus. When we engage the gluteus maximus—particularly the lower fibers near the hamstring insertion—these muscles extend the hip-joint. This is a good thing because we want the hips to extend slightly when we do backbends in order to help decompress the lumbar spine. Gluteal engagement also helps stabilize the sacroiliac joint—which is valuable because so many long-time yogis have hypermobile and unstable SI joints.

But, let’s answer the question with a little more nuance since some backbends are enhanced by gluteal engagement and others are not. Prone backbends like Locust and Cobra Pose probably don’t benefit as much from gluteal contraction because the weight of the pelvis rests on the floor during these postures. This means that you don’t need gluteal strength to lift the pelvis because it stays on the ground in the pose; you also don’t need the stabilization that the glutes provide because the pelvis is supported by the floor.

In kneeling backbends like Camel Pose and supine backbends like Bridge Pose and Upward Bow Pose, gluteal engagement is more helpful. These postures produce a greater degree of spinal extension so it’s even more important that the pelvis and spine move cohesively. Engaging the glutes near the hamstring insertion, will help maintain this balance by rotating the pelvis slightly back over the top of the legs. This will help reduce lumbar compression—the feeling of your lower-back “crunching.” Even more, the glutes help lift the weight of the pelvis in supine backbends. If you don’t use the glutes in these postures, you might unnecessarily burden less efficient muscle groups.

Some teachers and students are concerned that using the glutes will make the knees splay too far apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s easily managed. All you have to do in this situation is co-contract the muscles that line the inside of your thighs, the adductors. Firing the adductors while you engage your glutes will keep your thighs nice and neutral.

THE SEQUENCE

In the poses that follow, the prone (face-down) backbends are instructed with passive glutes, whereas the kneeling and reclined backbends are instructed with active glutes. I encourage you to experiment in these postures and observe what works best for your body.

Locust Pose

Lie down on your belly. As you exhale, lift your upper-body away from the floor. Root down through the top of your feet and ground the top of your smallest toe. Keep the glutes passive and focus on the work of your spinal muscles.

 

Cobra Pose

Again, start on your belly. Place your hands on the floor on either side of chest. Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone as you partially straighten your arms. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and hug your elbows toward your sides. Keep your glutes passive and allow your spinal muscles and arms to guide you into the posture.

 

Upward-Facing Dog Pose

Come into Upward-Facing Dog from Chaturanga. Once you’re in Updog, allow the glutes to be relatively passive. Focus on grounding down through your fingers, hands, and feet while lifting your thighs, hip-points, and chest.

 

Bridge Pose

Lie on your back, bend knees and place your feet flat on the floor, close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. You can either keep your arms by your sides or clasp your hands underneath your buttocks. Press down through your feet and raise your hips. Your glutes will fire to help raise your hips. Gently engage your inner legs by imagining that you’re squeezing a block between your thighs.

 

Camel Pose

Kneel on your mat and touch your hip-points with your finger tips. If you have a block, place it between your inner thighs. Lift your hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. This action will begin to fire your glutes near the insertion of the hamstrings. (One of my teachers, Richard Rosen, calls this part of the glutes the LBMs, or lower buttocks muscles.)

Take your hands to your heels, lift your chest, and lengthen your breath. If there’s a block between your thighs, squeeze it firmly. This engages your adductors and keeps your thighs parallel to each other.

 

Upward Bow Pose

Lie on your back like you did for Bridge Pose. Separate your feet hip-width. Lift into the posture on your exhalation. Once you are in the posture, bring your awareness to your glutes. Given the demand of the posture, your glutes will be firing. Feel the support that they’re providing while being mindful to simultaneously engage your inner thighs by hugging them toward your midline.

This post was originally featured on yogaglo. Please visit yogaglo.com where I offer online classes as well as e-courses focusing on sequencing and anatomy.

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5 Propped Poses to Help You Fall in Love With Backbends

Dhanurasana on a bolster
Think you can’t love backbends? You can. I promise, promise, promise. Backbends have always been — and still are — challenging for me. Even as a child, when I’d do an arabesque or a port de bras – both backbends in their own way – in ballet class, my back just looked flat and felt crunchy.

Early on in my practice, my desire to do deep backbends meant that I’d push myself too far and wind up feeling really awful the next day. Two things eventually happened that changed this pattern: First, I got curious about what was obstructing my backbends – was it really just my spine? Because that’s where all of my focus had been. When I started doing this self-inquiry, it became clear that it wasn’t. In some poses, it was that I hadn’t yet focused on the actions of the shoulder blades, while in other poses my tight hip flexors and quadriceps were limiting my range of motion. When I started to asking questions and investigating, things got infinitely more interesting and fun.

The second thing that happened was that I attended enough different yoga classes that I learned to use props. This was a complete game-changer for me. In this day and age of the fast-flow yoga obsession, props get a bad rap: They’re considered cumbersome or people feel embarrassed to use them. But I can attest that using just two blocks or a bolster can give you just the lift you need to go from crunchy and painful backbends to that heart-open, soaring feeling you crave.

So, without further ado, here are my favorite ways to make my backbends feel more open, spacious, and supported. Once you learn them, you can incorporate them into your regular practice without interrupting the flow and I promise you will notice a difference.

An alignment note: Jason often teaches how important it is to initiate backbends from the pelvis, and I agree. Initiate your forward bends by tilting the pelvis forward and initiate your backbends by tilting the pelvis – you guessed it – back.

To feel what that means, stand in Tadasana with your hands touching the bony protrusions on the front of your hips. Now, draw the hip points up (they won’t actually move very far in space) and gently drawing your abdomen back. Instead of letting your tailbone point back, think of drawing it down as though you were going to dig a hole in the ground with it. Aim for this position in all of your backbends.

1. Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog
Placing your hands on blocks in Updog gives you more space to get your pelvis into position and pull your chest through your arms. Once you get the sensation of broadness in your chest, you can start to draw your shoulder heads back and lift your breastbone up.

How to
Place your blocks on your mat, shoulder distance apart. Place your hands on the blocks and prepare for the pose: With your elbows bent, draw your shoulder heads back and feel your shoulder blades moving toward your spine. Gently draw your abdomen back and lengthen your low back.

Now, lift up into the pose and work your legs. Work your legs! They are the supporting players in your body’s ensemble – draw your quads up, squeeze your inner thighs toward each other and hug your outer ankles in. Do you feel brighter, lighter, more lifted in your Updog now?

2. Dhanurasana

Dhanurasana on a bolster
If given the choice, I would always do Dhanurasana on a bolster. My experience of this propped variation is that the bolster gives me the boost I need to really lift my chest and it presses into my abdomen and helps me keep my lower back long.

How to
It may take some time for you to find just the right place for the bolster. If it’s too far back, you’ll do a faceplant. If it’s too far forward you’ll compress your bottom ribs. Ideally, it will be underneath the front of your pelvis – so across the pubic bone.

Once you feel like it’s in the right place, place your fingertips on the floor in front of you, bend your knees and lift your chest. Reach back and grab your outer ankles. Then strongly kick your shins back into your hands and straight up toward the ceiling. Allow your shoulder blades to squeeze together and lift your breastbone. Keep your lower back long.

3. Camel

camel_collage
Using blocks Camel Pose can help you remain aligned and stable in your lower body. When your pelvis and lower body are stable in backbends, you’re less likely to “sit in” (i.e. compress) your lower back.

How to
Stand on your shins with a block on either side of your outer ankles. Look down and see that your knees are directly beneath your hips. Squeeze your inner legs together so that you feel supported. Bring your hands to your lower back, fingertips pointing down – let this serve as a tactile cue to keep your low back long. From there, inhale as you lift, lift, lift your breastbone and arch back. Bring your hands to the blocks and press down into them. Allow your heart to rebound up toward the ceiling. Keep your lower back long.

4. King Arthur’s Pose — The Road to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II

eka_pada_II_collage
There’s no variation that helps me more with the Pigeon series than King Arthur’s Pose. It’s incredibly efficient at opening the hip flexors and quadriceps while your knee is flexed (which is the same position your legs are in for full Pigeon). It also gives you the opportunity to practice keeping your pelvis and lower body stable while you lift your chest and start to backbend toward the wall.

How To
If you have sensitive knees, fold a blanket or grab a pillow and place it against the wall. Set up two blocks so that they’re near your mat. To get into the pose, come into a standing forward bend with very bent knees and your fingertips on the floor. Bend your left knee and place your shin against the wall. Slide it down until your knee is on the floor and against the wall. Then step your right foot forward between your hands.

Press your shin against the wall and tilt your pelvis back. Place your hands on the blocks and stay. Breathe. Stay. Curse the gods. And stay a little longer.

If you feel stable here, lift your chest, and draw your arms up by your ears. If you want to go deeper, keep lifting your chest and reach your hands back toward the wall. You are almost in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II! This is your version of the pose, so own it.

5. Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Upward Bow or Wheel Pose)

Urdhva Dhanurasana

I like placing the blocks under my feet in this pose, because I have extremely tight hip flexors and quads. If your shoulders are tight, you might prefer the blocks under your hands. Better yet, try both and feel the difference.

How to
Do this pose only after a good, thorough backbending sequence! You can find a full sequence to Urdhva Dhanurasana here. The set up for both of these is the same: Place your blocks on your mat against a wall. Lie back and place your hands on the edge of the blocks. For this version of the pose, I suggest coming up in one breath (not resting on the head). Take a big breath in, then exhale and use your arms and legs to press up into the pose. Draw your tailbone toward your knees and lift your breastbone straight up toward the ceiling. Stay for a few breaths and then slowly lower down. Rest for a few breaths, then try placing your feet on the blocks and repeat the instructions above.

If you need more details about how to get into Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can check out the full pose breakdown here.

Let me know how it goes and if you have any favorites to add in the comments!

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The Surprising Way to Deepen Your Backbends

King Arthur's PoseFor a very long time I thought my backbends were tight because my back was tight. I don’t mean to humblebrag, but, uh, logic is one of my strong suits. Unfortunately, my logic was causing me to see only half of the picture: My hips were impeding me just as much as my computer slouch.

I had to change my perception of backbends: They not only require bending your spine, they require openness along the whole front side of your body. In other words, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are hanging you up in your backbends, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips, and abdomen.

Most of us are tight there as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This tightness makes it difficult to tilt the pelvis backward (posteriorly) — think hip bones lifting, tailbone dropping. This backward tilt of the pelvis is necessary if you want to create an even backbend. If you can’t get your pelvis into position, you’re more likely to compensate by overarching your lower back.

WHY WE LOVE KING ARTHUR’S POSE:
King Arthur’s Pose and its variations intensely targets quads and hip flexors, making it a great prep for backbends. It’s also adjustable: You can press your hips all the way back against the wall to really target the quads. Or you can lower your hips (like a Low Lunge) if you want to get more into the hip flexors and adductors.

WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT STRETCH?
The effectiveness of King Arthur’s Pose stems form the fact that it stretches all of your quadriceps and hip-flexors simultaneously. The technical reason for this is that your knee is flexed and your hip is extended. This means that the posture is stretching your vasti muscles (3 of your 4 quadriceps), your rectus femoris (your 4th quadriceps which is also one of your hip-flexors), and your illiopsoas. If your abdominals are particularly tight, you might also stretch them in this posture.

HOW TO:
A friendly PSA: It can take some experimenting to get into the pose. Be patient and play around with what feels most effective. Knee pain = back off. It is not worth (ever) hurting your bod in an effort to do a pose.

1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.
2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.
3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.
4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.
5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.

BE MINDFUL OF:
Moving your pelvis toward an anterior tilt: If you find yourself sticking your bottom out, it’s a sign that you need to come out of the stretch a little bit. To counteract an anterior tilt, think of lifting your hip points up toward the ceiling as your tailbone drops toward the floor.

Similarly, keep your spine upright, not leaning forward. If you feel any strain, bring your hands to the floor or to blocks.

WHAT POSES WILL THIS HELP ME WITH?
King Arthur’s Pose is an excellent prep for Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Wheel Pose or Upward Bow Pose) and the whole Pigeon family of poses, which require you to keep your pelvis stable while one leg stretches forward and the other stretches back.

Wheel Pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, II, & IV

WHERE SHOULD I PUT IT IN A SEQUENCE?
I usually place this pose after Sun Salutations and standing poses. It’s a natural place to pause and give take a breather. As you hang out in the pose for at least 20 breaths, you can remind yourself that this period of focused effort reward you with more playful backbends later.

This is also the perfect “TV watching” or “newspaper reading” pose. Hang out in it while you watch the Bachelorette and your whole family will be impressed!

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: 30-Minute Whole Body Sequence

There are days when we want to work toward a peak pose, and there are other days when we’re not sure what to do with our bodies. On those days, I always find it’s most helpful to do an all-around balanced practice: One that stretches and strengthens all the different regions of the body, that works the front body, back, and side body, and that allows me to turn upside down, even if only for a 5-10 breaths.

Not only are these types of sequences physically balancing, they are often incredibly soothing to the nervous system. To encourage this effect, I invite you to spread your attention evenly throughout your whole body as you do each pose in the sequence below. Instead of focusing on the part of your body that feels the biggest sensation or stretch — which, by the way, can be a very valuable technique for focusing attention during asana practice — try to give all the different parts and pieces of the pose the same amount of attention. Let the shapes of the poses spark genuine curiosity in you — check in to what the back leg is doing in Warrior II or what the fingers are doing in Triangle Pose. By cultivating this type of attention, you’ll create a wonderful sense of soothing equanimity in your attention, in your nervous system, and in your poses.

Whole Body Yoga Sequence

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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: Ease into Urdhva Dhanurasana

Urdhva Dhanurasana, aka Upward-Bow or Wheel Pose or simply “Backbend,” is an iconic pose in the yoga canon. Visually it represents the acrobatic flexibility that so many of us long for when we first begin the yoga practice. But too often the feeling of the pose doesn’t match that open, soaring look.

My first piece of advice when practicing Urdhva Dhanurasana is to focus on creating even sensations throughout your whole body when you do the pose. Instead of focusing on going deep, focus on creating evenness. When you practice this way, not only will the pose feel a whole lot better, you’ll be more apt to open the places that need it and derive the overall benefits of backbending! (An added benefit is that you potentially head off injuries because you’re not pushing past your edge).

This month’s sequence prepares you for Wheel Pose by opening the shoulders and upper back as well as the front sheath of the body — specifically the quadriceps and hip flexors. It also builds heat in the whole body. All of this should help you feel more ease, more space, more joy in your backbend.

There’s so much more to say about sequencing for backbends. If you want to find out more, I encourage you to check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. And, as always, please sign up for my mailing list if you want to get a monthly reminder when new sequences go up. Have fun practicing!

Quick side note: In the interest of keeping the sequence as easy-to-read as possible, we’ve chosen to write the poses out in English instead of Sanskrit this month.
30-Minute Wheel Pose Sequence
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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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