Probably children did not realize the fact that back bending is not a natural movement and would perform their somersaults non-stop. We grow, become “mature” and “sensible” and come to the grand realization that we should not do backward bending because it is an unnatural movement.
Our SPINE – A Miraculous Structure
Our spine is extraordinary in its combination of rigidity and flexibility. Rigidity in the form of vertebra and flexibility in the form of inter-vertebral disc, that assists in the movement of the back. This duality of rigidity & flexibility can only be maintained and balanced when we do backward bend on a regular basis. It does not mean, however, that we do not need to perform forward bend. The advantage, though, is that we perform forward bend unknowingly on a regular basis. With aging, our disc starts drying up thereby causing stiffness of the back. Yoga has long claimed that all the bending and stretching will make the backbone youthful. Science has examined such declarations and found that yoga can, in fact, counteract the deterioration of the disc that lies between the vertebrae. It is believed that any asana when performed systematically in form of stretching, bending, twisting, brings sufficient oxygen and nutrients to the discs thereby maintaining their suppleness.
Backward Bending: Keeps your SPINE Healthy
Leslie Kaminoff in his book “Yoga Anatomy” explains the concept of Intrinsic Equilibrium, which states, why the spine is not only a self-supporting structure but also any spinal movement produces potential energy that returns the spine to neutral position. According to him, ‘Yoga can help you to release the stored potential energy of the axial skeleton by identifying and releasing the less efficient extraneous muscular effort that can obstruct the expression of those deeper forces.’
Forward & Backward Bend Form a Pair
As we know, skeletal muscles work in pairs as opposing forces. As one muscle contracts, the other muscle relaxes. Backward bend and forward bend form a pair. In layman’s term, one muscle is not supposed to be in a contracted mode or in an extended mode for a longer period of time. It needs both extension and contraction simultaneously for optimum suppleness.
Muscular Imbalance can be managed with backward bending
Take a minute and run your mind through daily chores. Your day-to-day movements have predominance of forward bending. Bending forward to pick up, sitting on the chair for hours and looking down to the desk or computer monitor which is generally not aligned with your sitting posture and yes not to forget, the cellphone which keeps our thumbs active but at the same time our head dropped down. These everyday practices are recipes for many health problem including back pain, cervical spondylitis etc. Even kids are not spared of this. Such activities are working our spine only in one direction thereby leading to muscular imbalance. This is undesirable and will require fixing for a healthy back. Constant forward bend causes a collapsing effect from the waist thereby pushing the vertebrae backward causing the discs to move back, shortening the front of the spine and straining the muscles of the back. This happens every single time we bend down for any activity. Backward bending will help align the vertebrae, thereby help maintain the muscular balance.
Neutrality of spine for a healthy back
Only if we could maintain the neutrality of the spine naturally! Forward bend (only) affects the functioning of vital organs and glands disturbing their proper function. It disturbs the natural curve of the spine leading to postural misalignment. This will bring about lower back pain, disc injury, muscle spasm, muscle tightness etc. Counter stretch in form of back bend will help eliminate / deal with these problems and maintain the neutrality of the spine.
Drooping shoulders a common scenario
As per American College of Sports Medicine, “there is a 15% loss in shoulder flexion from the age of 30 years to 70+ years”. On top of that, if we are mostly in the forward bending mode and not doing backward bend at all, the loss is definitely expected to exceed this 15% limit. Simple action like raising your arm to put your hand in the sleeve will require external assistance or in extreme cases, cause excruciating pain.
Impedes the ability of lungs to expand
Poor posture causes drooping shoulders, which in turn is an impediment to the ability of the lungs to expand. When slumped, lungs have less room to contract and inflate, thereby decreasing its capacity to obtain maximum oxygen.
Stiff back on the rise
We hardly associate with terms like “tight back or stiff back” in our growing days. The body remains active and supple as a result of different body movements. As we grow older, these terms start occupying a greater shelf life in our lives. Coming across someone with a tight back is a common occurrence when we get into the so-called “corporate life” or “sedentary lifestyle.” Involving lower back in the backward bend appropriately will help release this stiffness and tightness.
Back Pain & Neck Pain
Tight back leads to back pain. Constantly looking down wherein your neck is not aligned with the rest of the spine and the head, leads to muscular imbalance of the neck and is a leading cause of neck pain. Cervical spondylitis being the most prevalent outcome. Backward bending is required to counter these effects. It decompresses the front of vertebra and compresses the posterior part of our spine thereby equalizing the effect.
Ask an asthma patient or anyone with respiratory problems – what it means to take deep breath? As supposedly healthy human being, we hardly bother to take a stock of our own breathing. It does not mean that we breathe right. We breathe but end up being shallow breathers. Backward bending when practiced safely brings you the feeling that your chest and back have thrown off some shackles. That your lungs are bathing in the inflow of fresh air. It is a beautiful feeling beyond explanation. Only those who have learned to perform this with ease can experience this FREEDOM.
Important Chakras are located in the spine
Chakras, “the energy system” forms an integral part of yogic science. There are seven main chakras and they are located along the spine extending out the front and back of the body. The upward flow of energy brings spiritual awareness. Since, spine is the location for these important seven chakras, a healthy spine becomes the first criteria to reach such awareness.
Athletes & Backward Bend
Some of the athletes like runners, cyclists keep contemplating if they need backward bending at all as their movement is forward oriented or they are running straight on the surface. We will need to review our spinal structural again here. Inter-vertebral disc does the job of shock absorber. It accounts for the shape and length of the back. Increased age and we have decreased disc lubrication thereby directly affecting their compressibility and expansibility. The ultimate result is reduced flexibility and increased stiffness in our back. In case of runners, they are constantly jumping vertically from one step to the next. This movement causes the disc to compress. In order to preserve the health of the back and the spine, stretching is a must to lengthen the ligaments, which enclose the discs. This lengthening will allow the disc to align itself, back in place, thereby help maintain its natural curve. Tight hip flexor & tight groin is a common complaint among cyclists, runners & athletes. Hip flexor and groin assist backward bend. Since, these athletes mostly have tight hip flexor & groin, they find it difficult to perform backward bend compared to non-athletes. Having said that, gradual backward bend practice will stretch the hip flexors not only releasing the tightness from that region but at the same time preventing related injuries. Along with this, it also develops power and strength in the legs, core and back.
Emotional Triumph – “I overcame my fear, you can too”
All of us fear the unknown. But we know for a fact that we have a fear of the known as well, especially when things are difficult or the negative result is quite pronounced. Coming to back bending, someone with a naturally stiff back has a tendency to avoid back bend not for anything but because of associated discomfort. Stiffness on one hand and the fear of falling back due to gravitational force and getting hurt, on the other (both known fear), keeps them from even trying. Key is doing it gradually and doing it right. If followed correctly, one is bound to fall in love with back bending over a period of time. It is at this point that we realize that we have won over our fear and have taken a step forward with sheer determination and discipline. In spite its initial challenges, back bending can be one of the most therapeutic parts of yoga practice. There are tremendous benefits of performing back bend. The pivotal point is to do it safely, in a systematic manner so that gradual and regular practice takes you towards a rejuvenating experience. Preparing for back bend in itself is a vast topic for discussion. For the time being, it is important to route our thought process in a positive direction and take small steps that will help us achieve the bigger goal.
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.