This posture on Facebook which required unnatural involvement of back and trunk generated lot of discussions. The one comment that caught my attention was, “practicing backward bend is not of much functional use for me so why should I do it anyway!!”.

Introduction PictureFair enough! Seemed practical and logical. In fact, took me back to the phase where backward bending asana was not a thing I would look forward to because of the resulting soreness and discomfort. I had come to a state where I resolved never to practice the same. Contrary to this, some of my students (irrespective of their age) perform backward bending postures not only with ease but also with extreme ecstasy and feel relief while performing the same. I gathered, over a period of my teaching experience, that there are people who have a naturally supple back and there are others with naturally stiff one. Given a choice to perform on their own, the former would always choose and the latter will always avoid backward bending. Back bending asana for this second category (who vehemently oppose the practice ((definitely in the beginning)) requires a systematic process of preparation albeit injury is inevitable.

Functional Movements: What does it mean?

sy1The first point was to get familiar with the term, ”Functional Use”. Wikipedia defines, “Functional Movements” as movements based on real-world situational biomechanics. They usually involve multi-planar, multi-joint movements which place demand on the body’s core musculature and innervation.” In layman’s terms, movements, which allow us to perform our regular day-to-day activities along with different movement patterns, are referred to as “functional movements.”

There are seven primal functional movements: Squatting, Twisting, Pushing, Gait, Lunging, Bending and Pulling. While designing an exercise program, it is important to incorporate all these seven movements in the regimen. It is important to note, however, “bending” as a part of primal functional movement pattern refers mainly to forward bending movements and not backward bending movements, thus the statement, “Back bending is not a part of functional movement”.

Time to get the basics RIGHT!!

Before I touch upon the ‘title’ of this blog in detail, let us get few basic concepts clear about back bending movement and asana.

“BACK” – Which part of the body exactly?

Picture 3xIn order to understand, what idea the term “BACK” invokes in one’s mind, I put forth this question to all my acquaintances. To my surprise, none of them were able to precisely or correctly identify the said area. In fact, majority of them pointed out to the lumbar region. Lumbar refers to the lower part of the back which is prone to ailments like sciatica, slip disc, backache, back spasm, back stress etc. Since these terms have managed to occupy an almost permanent place in our normal life and are connected with lumbar region, many of them found it easy to associate “back” with that area, I guess.

“Back” definitely refers to the posterior part of our body and includes the areas from the top of the buttock to the back of the neck and shoulder. So, loosely, we can say that human back refers to the whole spine.

Backward bending and back bending are not SYNONYMOUS.

Though mostly used synonymously, backward bending & back bending are not the same.

Backward Bending Back bending
1 Backward bending is a whole body arch involving each and every part of your body from toes to the fingertips. Back bending is extension of backward bending which deepens the bend mostly by involving the lower back.
2 The tension can be felt throughout especially in the front side of the body. The tension is mostly concentrated at the lower back.
3 Backward bending, done correctly help strengthen one’s back. You must have a strong back and abdominal muscle to perform this.
4 Your head is upright and in alignment with the rest of the vertebrae. Head is falling back and is very much in gravitational grip.
5 Knees are almost locked (slight micro bending). There is bending at the knee.

In short, one needs to graduate from backward bending to back bending.

Movements of Spine

The four spinal movements, which can be seen in our day-to-day chores, are:

1 Flexion (Forward Bending) A fork falls down and we bend down to pick it up.
2 Extension (Spinal Lengthening) You are literally on your toes to get your travel bag down from the upper shelf.
3 Axial Rotation (Twisting Movement) Turning around to the back while reversing your car.*Axial refers to part of skeleton comprising of skull, spinal column, sternum & ribs.
4 Lateral Flexion (Side bending) Reaching your arm into the sleeves of a shirt.

Picture2xxAs we can see that these movements complement our daily activities. The SPINE needs certain level of flexibility to allow us to perform these movements. Yoga does help accentuate these movements with various postures.

Apart from the aforementioned, another critical movement is, “Axial Extension” which is somewhat unnatural movement and needs intentional involvement of your musculature and breathing in a very specific manner. This movement increases the overall length of the spine by reducing the curves of the spine.

Types of back bending

Back bending does refer to bending of the back. However, spinal movements used only for bending of the back can be performed in various ways with the involvement of different muscles and further a varied emphasis on breathing. So roughly we can group back bending in:

1 Standing Position Hasta Uttansansa / raised arm pose
2 Prone Position Naukasana / boat  (lying down on the abdomen)
3 Kneeling & Reclining Position Ushtrasana / Camel Pose
4 Supine Position Setubandhasana / Bridge Pose (lying down on your back)

Picture1xThe first backward bend picture is covered under spinal movement (standing position as spinal lengthening). The other three back bends are:

Even though all these postures involve bending your back, each posture works differently on your spine and gluteal muscles. Understanding that micro bit will not only help optimize the benefits but at the same time minimize the fear and injuries associated with back bending. With the above details hopefully, you can open your mind to the liberal usage of the term “BACK BEND” and move away from the idea that backbend involves only postures like Urdhava Dhanurasana (wheel or arch from standing to back mostly).

People with stiff back are people who are

Stiff Flexible
1 With stiff muscles & ligaments not allowing movement Highly flexible and thus does not have much control on important muscles
2 Lack of flexibility Lack stability
3 Leading to movement restriction and expected injury Leading to injury

A few years into my personal yogic journey, I realized that my already flexible body had turned into a more flexible one; this led close to a condition called “Congenital Laxity”. The side effect of this condition was frequent injuries. Hypermobility and lack of voluntary muscular involvement was leading to these bouts of injuries. It may be surprising for some to note that people with stiff bodies, to a greater extent, are the people who suffer less injury unless they overstretch without being mindful in their this act.

It was important to lay down a base for explanation. This will make it easy to handle the title of the blog. The part – II of this blog would emphasis on how important backward bending is to maintain the health of your spine. Further, it would illustrate the truth of the statement, “you are as young as the flexibility of your spine.” Check out “Part – II” of this section in my next blog.

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Shammi Gupta

Shammi Gupta, founder of Shammi’s Yogalaya holds an MA in Yoga Shastra, is a certified Yogic Therapist and Naturopath, has completed an Advanced Yoga Course and holds a Diploma in Yoga Education from Mumbai University. She is a certified trainer from American College of Sports Medicine and holds an MBA in HR & MBA in Finance from The University of Akron, Ohio, USA. She conducts Health Awareness Workshops for Corporates, Yogasana Workshops for Athletes and Yoga Therapy Workshops on different medical issues for patients. Among the celebrities Shammi trains are eminent personalities from the film and television industry and corporates.

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