Hatha Yoga has an array of back bending or back arching Yoga exercises that deliver a wealth of health benefits when done correctly. Back bending Yoga poses can be intimidating to those who have low back pain or previous low back injuries. When performed with the right intention and alignment techniques, back bends can be safe, effective, and revitalizing. The common error of doing back bending Yoga exercises is the immediate emphasis of moving into the spine thinking that we need to increase the “flexibility of the vertebrae”.
For most of us, the greatest limitation of the vertebrae is in the tissues surrounding the spine and attaching to them. A major cause of immobility on the vertebrae is tightness and resistance of the hip flexors on the pelvis and the anterior portion of the lumbar spine. This tightness of the hip flexors is often related to excess sitting positions that chronically shorten the hip flexors. The primary hip flexors start at the top portion of the thigh bone (femur) and connect along the interior crest of the hip bone (iliacus) and the anterior portion of the lumber vertebrae. When chronically tight, the low spine and pelvis are pulled forward placing blockages in the low back and creating weakness in the abdomen.
Back bending Yoga exercises are the perfect opportunity to break down these blockages. However, when many people do a back bend, they actually emphasis even more blockages in the low back by flowing deeper into this negative pulling energy of the hip flexors. The back bend becomes concentrated in the low back and further builds to imbalance.
To target the hip flexors and protect the low back is simple. Before arching, engage the abdominal muscles decreasing the distance between the pubic bone and chest bone. This creates a pelvic tilt opposite to the pull of the hip flexors. By maintaining this contraction (lock) in the abdomen, the posterior portion of lumbar vertebrae will have additional space and, when arching, the back bend will be distributed more evenly throughout the vertebrae and not driven heavily into the low back.
You can feel just by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) that when you slightly firm the abdomen, length travels up the hip flexors. Apply this same lock in all back bends so that you move your focus from arching into lower spine to, instead, expanding into the muscles limiting the vertebrae’s range of motion.