Bending the spine backward, or "backbending," has myriad benefits to the body and mind. You can do it standing, kneeling, lying on your belly or even on your back. In our culture of sitting in chairs and hunching over a computer or phone, backbending is more important than ever for simple, functional health. Here are 5 reasons to backbend:
5. Improve your posture: Most of us spend the day sitting and hunching to some degree. Our back arches forward, the chest collapses and the head juts forward. The back muscles get longer and weaker and lose their ability to hold the body upright. Over time this can lead to shallower breath, digestive issues and pain in the chest and back. Doing backbends, especially ones that encourage strength like Cobra, Bow or Full Locust (pictured above), will straighten the spine, lift the chest and head. This goes a long way to preventing all the problems listed above.
4. Energize your nervous system: Bending the spine backward exposes the chest and throat, stimulating our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). For those of us who are lethargic or sluggish, this stimulation has the ability to energize the mind and body.
3. Increase confidence: As explained above, backbending stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing our alertness. If we do backbends while lying on our bellies, we also push the pelvis into the ground, which stimulates the secretion of testosterone. Combining these two---alertness and testosterone---has the general effect of boosting self-esteem and confidence.
2. Improve your digestion: We usually sit or stand with a slight hunch, our ribs pressing down on our bellies. Unless we move around a lot, the intestines (in our bellies) become somewhat stagnant and lose some of their ability to move food through the digestive system and waste out. When we bend backward, this whole area gets stretched, drastically changing the shape of the intestines and abdominal viscera. This often has the effect of unsticking stagnant areas in the gut.
1. Reduce stress: When we backbend, we compress the back of the body where the kidneys and adrenal glands are located. This has the effect of reducing cortisol in the blood, lowering our stress on the chemical level. Several scientific have shown this to be true, one of the great "medical" benefits of practicing yoga and backbending.
When taken altogether, these benefits make backbending a powerful tool for mental and physical health.
Uddiyana and Nauli are traditional yogic practices. They date back more than 500 years to at least the Hatha Pradipika.
To do Uddiyana, one holds the breath out and then expands the ribcage as if inhaling. What results is a vacuum in the abdomen which sucks the belly, intestines and organs up. Uddiyana means 'flying up.' "This practice is called Uddiyana because the diaphragm is made to fly up from its original position and held very high in the thoracic cavity." (Yoga Mimamsa, Vol. 1, Oct. 1924)
In the early 1920s, Swami Kuvalayananda began a school and laboratory, using modern scientific equipment to test traditional yogic practices and publish the results. His newsletter is Yoga Mimamsa, which started in 1924 and continues today. The first edition was dedicated to the study of Uddiyana.
They performed two ground-breaking studies, one involving early X-Ray technology to view the intestines, and the other measuring the internal pressure of the abdominal cavity during Uddiyana. "This exercise has been studied under the X-Ray. Very interesting and valuable data have been collected. Two X-Ray experiments are published...and an article discussing the therapeutic value of this Yogic practice is included..." (ibid.)
The pictures above are from the 1960s, when Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji performed a similar experiment. These pictures are much clearer than the ones from 1924, which is why we post them here. The x-rays from 1924 are cloudy and difficult to discern. In the above pictures, one can clearly see that Uddiyana pulls the intestines and organs up into the thoracic cavity.
The second test measured pressure in the intestines and rectum during the practice. They found that internal pressure is reduced, creating a partial vacuum. "As soon as the muscles were moved for Nauli, the mercury fell through 40 mm. indicating a clear partial vacuum." (ibid.) The discovery of this vacuum was significant, since scientists of the time hypothesized that Nauli reversed the peristaltic movement of the intestines, which would be detrimental to health. The discovery of the partial vacuum refuted this idea. Kulvalayananda named his discovery the "Madhavadasa Vacuum," after his esteemed teacher.
As a teacher, there are few skills more useful than the ability to modify postures to fit the needs of an individual student. In sheer value it rivals the ability to lead a class, but modification requires significantly more knowledge and patience. After all, each classroom is filled with individuals who have different strengths, weaknesses and injuries.
THE PURPOSE OF THE POSTURE
Modifying any yoga posture or practice requires two things. The first is knowledge of the posture: What is its purpose? What are we trying to accomplish through its practice? Second is understanding how to adjust a posture to bypass a student's injuries and limitations while maintaining its primary function.
Each posture is nothing more than the sum total of its benefits. Does it build strength, flexibility, massage the intestines, affect the blood pressure, etc? Each posture has a unique combination of benefits that defines its purpose. To know these benefits is to understand the posture.
Of course, some benefits are more important than others. In general, benefits to the spine, torso, abdomen and circulatory system are more important than the extremities like the arms and legs. Coincidentally, many of the limitations that yoga students have are in their extremities: knee replacements, tight shoulders, painful feet, shaky balance.
This means that we can often improve a student's ability to execute (and therefore obtain the benefits of) a posture by removing the extremities and focusing on the center.
This posture compresses the intestines, encouraging movement that aids digestion and elimination, removing air.
Most of the power of this posture comes from the breath. Once you are holding the knees tightly, relax the abdomen and breathe deeply into the belly. The belly will push against the thighs, building pressure within. This creates internal heat and massages the intestines.
Keep the spine as straight as possible.
Breathe deeply into a relaxed abdomen. Inhale and exhale slowly and completely.
This posture improves digestion and reduces bloating in the belly. It stretches the hips and knees. It strengthens the breathing muscles, including the diaphragm. It improves lung capacity and breath control.
Excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Beginning.
The New York Times just reposted an interview with exercise physiologist Dr. Oliver Jay, asking if there are health benefits associated with sweating, and if more sweat means more benefit. This is a question that hits home to us as yogis who strive to build inner heat, and especially as part of the Bikram and Hot yoga communities where lots of extra heat is added for supposed increased benefits.
“There’s this entrenched idea that it’s good to ‘sweat things out,’” Dr. Jay said, but in fact “sweating, per se, provides no health benefits,” apart from preventing overheating.
Exercise, especially vigorous exercise, raises the internal body temperature. "The benefits derive from the exercise itself," not the accompanying rise in body temperature or the sweat that is meant to cool us. Perspiring, in and of itself, does not provide or amplify those effects, Dr. Jay said.
That situation doesn’t change if you’re sweating due to a hot environment. “Sweat is sweat,” he said. You will perspire more if the air is humid, he said, because sweat doesn’t evaporate efficiently in humidity, and it’s evaporation that actually cools your body. But you aren’t gaining extra health benefits from drenching your clothing with perspiration.
CONSIDERING "HOT" YOGA
We got our start in Bikram's class, where the temperature is 105 degrees and you sweat like crazy. There is a continuing trend toward making yoga hot to induce more sweating and increase muscle flexibility (which largely happens through numbing the nervous system, but that's another story).
Also there is the "sauna therapy" argument, that when exposed to high temperatures the heart rate increases and the blood vessels dilate, improving cardiac and vascular function.
There is new research that practicing yoga in high heat may have a positive impact on cholesterol levels. Contrarily, there is new research that many of the vascular benefits of yoga and stretching are gained at room temperature just as well as in a heated room.
There are 3 main arguments for practicing yoga or exercising in the heat: 1) increased effectiveness of the exercise, as indicated by rise in body temperature and amount of sweat; 2) increased mobility and flexibility; and 3) benefits to the cardiac and especially vascular system.
Argument #1 is simply not true. An exercise is not more beneficial when done in heat, and more sweat - even higher body temperature - does not mean more benefit (see the NY Times article).
Argument #2 is a double-edged sword. Heat-induced flexibility may be beneficial to certain parts of the population, like the elderly or injured, but it is detrimental to those who are already flexible, encouraging hyper-mobility. For the general public it's a toss-up.
Argument #3 is a good one, and it's gaining clarity with each passing study. Pure Action is funding research to try to tease out the vascular benefits that may come from heat without yoga, those that may come from yoga without heat, and those that are accentuated when the two are put together.
A lot of people in our Western culture suffer from back pain. It often comes from spending so much time sitting in chairs, in cars and on sofas. The muscles of the back become weak at the same time as the hips and legs become tight. Most back pain can be eased by strengthening the back and stretching the hips. The postures in this sequence are intended to do just that. They lengthen the spine, pelvis, hips and legs, and they strengthen the back.
It is a common misconception that stretching the back will relieve back pain. Generally, the back is already too loose and weak, so stretching can irritate the problem and even make it worse.
This sequence takes about 30 minutes to do.
Excerpt from the Beginning Practice Manual.
Asana practice focuses a lot of attention on stretching and "opening" the body. It goes to great lengths to reduce tension in the body and mind, and increase the functional range of motion in the joints of the body.
But flexibility is not the solution to every physical, mental and spiritual problem. Strength is the other side of the body's coin and equally as valuable. Because asana practice uses only body weight and no apparatus (one of its great values), and focuses largely on static held positions, there is a limited amount of strength one can build using only asana.
BODY WEIGHT, NO MACHINES
Yoga practice doesn't use any equipment. Before the 1970s there weren't even yoga mats. Only the body. This is one of the greatest traits of physical yoga practice, which it has in common with calisthenics and other apparatus-free disciplines. It can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. There is no expensive equipment needed; no special outfit or shoes. The poorest pauper can do it as well as the richest king. Such is the great democratization of yogic practice.
But if we take health and function of the human body as one of our core goals (which admittedly not everyone does), we must expand the exercises we use and the tools that help us.
Pulling is something we can't do in yoga. Since it requires an object - like weights - to pull toward the body, or an apparatus - like a pull-up bar - to pull the body toward, there are large systems of muscles and movement that are neglected in the physical yoga practice. All of the strengthening exercises in yoga are pushing actions.
It is no longer a secret that bodybuilders were some of the first modern yogis. In the Ghosh lineage, Bishnu Ghosh worked with Prof. Thakurta to learn "muscle controlling." But even he states in Muscle Control and Barbell Exercises that muscle control - which later influenced his understanding and teaching of asana - shouldn't be attempted by those with weak muscles. He states: "Muscle-controlling makes the muscles shapely and increases the power of application of strength. But I should like to call it the second stage of development, for one should have big muscles before he starts controlling." He is stating that muscle development with barbells should take place before one begins physical control of the body.
One drawback to a weightlifting practice commonly stated by asana practitioners is the fear that increasing strength will tighten their muscles and therefore make them less flexible. Because of kinesiological functions of the body, this isn't the case. Of course, repetitive uses of of the body do slightly change the way muscles work, but this happens over very long periods of time. (Example: a trained long distance swimmer has a body that works differently from a high jumpers.) For a yogi, any development of strength will actually encourage the integration of big muscle groups in the body, as well as deepen their relationship between muscle contraction and relaxation.
Anytime we use the body, it helps to know how it works. What are the results of our actions in the skeleton, muscles, tissues, organs and nervous system? This is especially important if we want the physical practice to build our health and avoid injury.
A lot of therapeutic yoga also uses knowledge about digestion, organ function, blood pressure and chemistry of the body. These things don't technically qualify as anatomy but lie more in the functional sciences.
Yogic practices of Pranayama (breath control) have a profound impact on the autonomic nervous system and the blood acidity, which in turn has diverse effects through the body and mind. Even Meditation is being illuminated by modern science, as we develop machines that take pictures of our brain function and how it is effected by various mental practices.
So many results of the yoga exercises can be explained and clarified by modern science, making it easier to understand, easier to duplicate and a lot easier to teach to others.
The third of the 6 abdominal engagements is relaxation of both the front and back of the body. This sounds really easy but takes a fair amount of awareness and control. We are used to relaxing one side while the other engages.
Relaxing all the muscles of the abdomen has three great functions: It allows the massage of the intestines by the diaphragm, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and it can help release systemic tension in the muscles, especially of the low back.
MASSAGING THE INTESTINES
We don't think much about our intestines, even though they are the primary organ of our digestion. Their healthy function is essential to getting nutrition from the food we eat and expelling the waste. If either of these processes suffers, our health suffers. Most of the postures that we do with relaxed front and backside muscles are targeted directly at the intestinal function. The most obvious is Wind Removing Posture, where we breathe with the diaphragm to massage the intestines.
PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
When the muscles of the abdomen relax, our "rest and digest" part of the nervous system is stimulated. This means that our stress is reduced, our digestion improves, our immune function increases and our mind calms down. It is easy to work too hard in these relaxation postures, negating the stimulation of the parasympathetic. Be sure to keep the abdomen relaxed and breathe deeply.
LOW BACK TIGHTNESS
A more specific benefit that can be had from these postures is the release of chronically-tight low back muscles. This relaxation is achieved through the breath. The deeper you breathe into the abdomen, the more the muscles of the belly and low back will release.
This type of muscular action encompasses (from left to right) Shavasana (Corpse Pose), Wind Removing (one leg and both legs), and Half Tortoise. This is a small number of postures, so be sure to get the benefits when you do them!
Yogis love to talk about the hips, so much that it has become a joke.
The hips are big joints with diverse movement, and they are central in the body. It is hard to consider any movement or yoga posture without considering the hips.
The main hip muscles that give us everyday problems are the hamstrings, in the back of the legs. They can get very tight from sitting, running, cycling or any number of activities. The problem comes because tight hamstrings can cause the pelvis to tilt backward and flatten out the curve in the lumbar (lower) spine. This will create weakness and seizing muscles in the low back. As such, back pain can be caused by tight hamstrings.
The muscles in the front of the hip that help us lift the leg forward are called the hip flexors. These get very tight when we sit a lot (which most of us do). Tight hip flexors can also prevent the pelvis from moving freely, causing problems in the spine. Pretty much all of us can benefit from stretching our hip flexors.
This is the movement required for many advanced yoga postures, especially for long sitting that enables breathing and meditation. The hips externally rotate, requiring flexibility in the psoas and iliacus, the tensor fascia latae, the gluteus medius, the adductors (inner thigh), and the stabilizers like the piriformis. Hip rotation gets into a lot of small, tough muscles, so progress is often far slower than when we stretch longer muscles. Be patient.
The sciatic nerve comes out of the low spine and weaves through the hips before running down the leg. Irritation of the sciatic nerve can result in hip pain and pain or tingling that radiates down the leg. This irritation can be difficult to heal, since the nerve is long and complex. A good place to start is with the piriformis, one of the externally rotating hip stabilizers. Postures like Pigeon that stretch the back of the hip may bring some relief.
Once the pelvis is free to move forward and backward, and the spine is able to maintain its natural curves, the hamstrings are long enough. Sometimes there is a tendency in yoga to stretch the hamstrings as far as humanly possible, but that is rarely healthy. And it actually doesn't serve many advanced yoga positions, which generally require hip rotation instead of hamstring length.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth