Individuals who have difficulty in backbends can be categorized into two main groups: those with tight muscles and ligaments and those who are naturally loose and highly flexible. In every body, there is a dance between the qualities of stability and flexibility in the musculoskeletal system. There is a myth that being more flexible is a sign of better physical health. However, the more flexible a person is, the more prone their ligaments are to injury in yoga because they lack stability.
Conversely, those who are stiff are less likely to suffer an injury due to overstretching. However, these individuals need to increase their flexibility so the pelvis and spine can move freely and avoid compression during activities of daily living.
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Common restrictions for tight individuals include decreased range of motion in the chest, shoulders and hips (primarily in the hip flexors and external rotators). These areas become restricted from prolonged sitting at a desk, driving, frequent forward bending, lifting and from overtraining the anterior chest musculature. Runners, cyclists and avid athletes are prone to tightness in the hip flexors and external rotators as well. These individuals need to focus on increasing flexibility in the chest and hips to prepare for backbends.
Hyper flexible people experience different difficulties in back bending postures. They often have tight hip flexors but compensate with overextension in the low back. Core strength is usually lacking in these individuals, so they tend to 'hinge' at one segment in their spine over and over again instead of dividing the extension throughout the length of the spine. In this case, the hyper-mobile segment becomes more mobile while the tighter segments in the spine stay tight. Years of 'dumping' into the low back without awareness can lead to injury as the segment bears all the work. These individuals need to focus on stability and strength in their backbends, which may mean backing off a little to maintain the integrity of the pose and length throughout the entire spine.
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How to Practice Correctly
Here are some important tips to help you achieve success in your back bending poses:
- Warm up. In order to be ready for backbends, you must practice poses that open the chest, hip flexors, quadriceps and external rotators of the hip. It is also important to practice a couple of poses that encourage strength in the arms and legs to prepare for certain backbends.
- Keep the front body long. "Backbends should really be called front body lengtheners," says Jo Zukovich, a well-known Iyengar yoga teacher from San Diego. While extending your lumbar spine, it is important to maintain length at the same time so there is more space and equal movement between each spinal segment. The common mistake that leads to pain and injury is collapsing in the spine at one segment while in the backbend.
- Internally rotate your hips. Internal rotation in the hips is essential in all backbends to avoid compression in the spine. If your hips externally rotate (which will cause the knees to splay out), your stronger muscles, namely the gluteus maximus and external hip rotators, will contract. By internally rotating the thighs, you turn off those stronger hip muscles and activate the deeper gluteal muscles which help to create more space.
Avoid gripping. The tendency in backbends is to contract the buttocks strongly which creates more compression and less freedom in the spine. In addition, 'tucking of the tailbone' creates shortening instead of increased length in the spine. Instead, think about lifting the lower belly to help the tailbone descend. This creates length while maintaining the integrity of the spine and core strength in backbends.
Don't fight the backbend, GO FOR IT. Many people try to resist the backbend while they are doing it. Focus on moving the spine into the body as if it were sinking into quicksand in order to safely increase extension in the lumbar spine.
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