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, 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 that’s not what back bending is about.

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. Just need to find the appropriate poses for you at the time.

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.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
Ustrasana is a traditional backbend

Montse Gili in Sefton Park, photo by Hannah Cockett

  • 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). 

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.


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.