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The Pain of Back bends

After the release of my dvd on backbending yoga, I had students writing to me about their practice. I found their questions to be helpful and decided to answer them through my blog writing.

Here’s one question related to pain.

“Sometimes I experience waist pain after backbending practice. What am I doing wrong?”

There are many factors that could be attributing to this. However, it is not always about doing it wrong.

Let’s first look at what kind of pain it is. There are different kinds of pain and not all pain is bad. Guruji (or Shri K. Pattabhi Jois) used to tell me in class, “little pain today and gone tomorrow”. Pain is an indicator the muscles and joints have been stretched physically beyond their ‘known’ limit. This is normal and a part of the process. However, determining what is actually good and bad pain can be tricky. And by no means am I inferring that pain is a perquisite to practice.

Assuming this not a pain of warning (usually a sharp ache that takes you by surprise), but a dull soreness that stretches over an entire area, I feel it is part of the process. A teacher in Mysore, India, used to say pain comes when you are not fully focused on your breath and the gazing points. We might think we are breathing during the practice but is it natural or has it become a forced breath?

Here are some recommendations to work with pain:

  1. Practice to observe your breath before and after a backbend. Practice to gradually even out your breaths so that it’s calmer and steadier. Focus on exhaling and slowing it down.

Pain can also arise when the practice series is not correct or right for you. When specifically practicing backbending it is vital to also include counter postures. These are twists, forward bends and neutral poses.

  1. Practice forward bends, sitting and spinal twists. These can be held for twice as long as backbends. The vinyasa series of cobra pose to down-dog and to sitting is an excellent counter movement.

It is easy to forget that backbending is not only about your back. It is about lengthening the front of your torso, opening the chest and shoulders, as well as lifting upward from the pelvis girdle. When the pain increases, this is a sign the muscles have overstretched while others have under-stretched. In backbends, the pressure can go into a weaker area first. Being aware of this you can adjust your practice and find relief.

  1. Practice to bend from your hips and not your waist. In standing backbends use the practice sequence of placing your hands on your waist (re: thumbs facing toward your spine). The same movement is repeated when we bend forward (re: pulling in the lower belly and extending forward).

When learning to practice more advanced postures like a backbend from a headstand, the pressure tends to go directly into the lumbar and dorsal muscles. To counter it, the shoulders need to draw back, the chest to expand and the legs to become more active.

  1. Practice lengthening your legs away from the hip sockets. Keep this lengthening as you bend backbend. When we start to bend back while upside down the counter direction is forgotten. Keeping this ‘tension’ will maintain the stretch from the hips and through the torso. It is also helpful to give more pressure onto your arms. Resist the pressure from the hips while being upside down. This creates a lot of strength too.

All counter sequencing is especially important in developing a balanced and full practice. The more the body moves sideways and forward this will always enhance the backbending sequence.

Originally published Heather’s blog for HelloYoga, 2012

Note:  all movements are recommended for everyone. Consult a trained teacher or medical doctor before beginning any exercise program. The content and information is for educational purposes from Heather Morton (The Yoga Way). Any use of the material, advice and instructions is at your own risk and not meant as a substitute for medical advice.


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