Backbends are an essential part of any physical yoga practice but it can feel very scary or un-safe when we suffer from back pain. So, are they safe or should we never do them?

When we think of  ‘backbending’ in yoga, images of gymnasts, or circus performers touching the back of their head with their feet, in an impossible contortion, come to mind. Thanks so much, Instagram! But there’s more to back bending and safer options.

If we see someone in the famous wheel pose (Chakrasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana depending on what yoga tradition you follow), some people may think, ‘I used to do that as a child (full disclosure, I didn’t), but now I’d break my back… so I can’t do yoga’. There goes one of those myths: that you have to already have a flexible spine to do yoga. Not true.

One thing is true though – you could cause injury to your body. So, why chase poses like that? There is no need whatsoever in order to do yoga! Because yes, you can do yoga, regardless of your spine flexibility. You just need to find the appropriate and safest poses for you.

You can do yoga and practice safe backbends, even with tight back muscles – when you do it the right way for you and your body.

Over time, you may (or may not) develop enough range of motion and flexibility in your spine to bend over backwards or any other fun poses you’d like to practice. But that’s NOT the goal. Do not stop doing spinal flexions because your spine doesn’t go very far.

The goal is to keep it supple, mobile, strong and healthy for as long as possible in your life. So start where you are now. Gentle flexions will help you develop that mobility overtime.

What many don’t realise is that back bending is as much about the front of the body as is about the back. Perhaps it’s with that in mind you should attempt them.

Ustrasana is a traditional backbend
Montse Gili in Ustrasana (Camel pose). Photo by Hannah Cocket

Here are a few more reasons why you should start working on gentle backbends:

  • Backbends are chest openers; they stretch the hip flexors and help open up the shoulders and chest. They are invigorating and strengthening, building power in your legs, arms and back.
  • They increase mobility and awareness of the spine, improving posture.
  • They also increase breathing capacity and can relieve upper and lower back pain.
  • Backbends take courage; opening the front of the body psychologically equals to exposing ourselves to the world and the more we cultivate that on the mat, the more courage we build up off the mat.

So, should we do them or not?

The good news is that we don’t need a big, flashy, contortionist-level backbend to reap all those benefits! We just need careful, measured and mindful movements, appropriate to where our bodies are now, today.

Start where you are now. Start with gentle chest openers, or with an easy cobra, or a Sphinx pose (Sphinx is still one of my favourite backbends, you can practice a short yin yoga session that includes Sphinx pose. Go HERE)

Test, try, listen to your body and don’t push it trying to achieve a particular shape that it’s not healthy for you right now (or maybe never).

Going slowly through the practice will benefit your body more than trying to accomplish any given pose.

Just by practising regularly, and starting slowly, you will get stronger, more flexible and hopefully more resilient and courageous on and off the mat.

The following practice is not only of backbends but in 10 minutes we gently move the spine in all directions. It’s a great place to start, especially if you have a delicate back.

Practice with me:

I have regular affordable drop-in classes online so you can ask questions about yoga safety, about back bending, about resilience or anything that worries you or you feel curious about.

If you are new, or newish, to the practice, consider private coaching with me.