Yoga backbends are incredibly therapeutic poses that provide your body (and your mind) with the opportunity to expand your flow of energy both physically and mentally. Also known as spine extenders, these poses open the front body, shoulders, and quads, and bring more space in between the vertebrae, which directly affects the main channel for the central nervous system.
1. Simple Yoga Lunge
This simple backbend is great for warming up your spine and opening the front of the leg and groin area. Start in downward facing dog, step your right foot forward and the lower your left knee to the mat and untuck your left toes. If you need extra padding for your back knee, you can use a blanket or fold your mat in half lengthwise. Shift your hips forward to feel a stretch in the front of your back leg and the groin, and if you feel balanced, raise your arms overheard and reach them up. Sink your hips and lift your chest at the same time, and if you can, bring your gaze up or back.
2. Ustrasana / Camel Pose
Ustrasana is a slightly more challenging backbend that helps open the chest and shoulders. Start on your knees (fold your mat a few times for extra cushion if you have sensitive knees) and bring your thumbs to your sacrum. Inhale to lift your chest, bring your pelvis forward, squeeze your elbows together and let your head go back. You can choose to stay here or reach your left hand to your left heel and your right hand to your right heel. Push your hands into your heels to lift your chest at the sternum and let your pelvis come forward again. For a modification you can curl your toes under so that your heels are easier to reach.
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3. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana with 2 Blocks
This is a variation of Bridge Pose, or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, using two blocks and an Iyengar yoga belt. Place one block at the wall, and one by your side. Cinch your upper thighs in internal rotation with the belt, and lie down with your feet facing the wall. Push your feet into the floor to lift your hips and then place the block under your sacrum. You can extend your legs so your feet rest on the block at the wall. You may have to adjust so that the blocks are in the correct place and your legs are completely straight. Interlace your fingers under your pelvis for a deeper chest and shoulder opener.
4. Urdhva Dhanurasana / Upward Facing Bow
This is a more advanced backend, so make sure to practice it under the guidance of a qualified teacher if you are not familiar with it. Place your feet close to your sitting bones, hip width apart, and your hands under your shoulders. Exhale all your air, inhale to straighten your arms and push your feet into the floor to lift your pelvis. Variations include lifting one leg up at a time (as pictured above), making sure to keep to foot on the floor firmly rooted and the pressure in your hands even.
5. Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana / One-Legged King Pigeon Pose
This is a very advanced yoga backbend that requires open hips and significant flexibility in the spine and shoulders. Bend your front knee so that your heel comes close to the opposite hip bone. Make sure your back leg is pointing straight back (this is where the hip flexibility will reveal itself). Lift your chest by pushing your hands into the floor, and start to bend your back leg. Reach back to hold on to your foot and bring your head toward your foot. You can always use a belt on your foot and a block or folded blanket under your hip for support if you don't have the flexibility to get into the full pose.
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