The following backbending preps are not my own – and yet they are. Taught to me by David Keil – whose book, The Functional Anatomy of Yoga, I’ve excerpted below – are ones I have incorporated when necessary for myself and shared with others.
Because though my back may be flexible enough, my hip flexors are not so supple. You can see this restriction mostly in my upward facing dog, but it’s one I will often feel in my low back. These preparatory exercises have offered me and others much relief.
But before I do, a little note of disclaimer: not everyone will benefit from these back bending preps.
This is the challenge we all face in sharing what works, or has worked, for us. I feel like this is common sense, but I’m going to say it anyway – not everyone has tight hip flexors. Sometimes other parts of our bodies require or attention first. Our bodies change (hasn’t yours already?) and thus, the way we practice as well as what we practice, should change as well.
And of course, I’ve written other blogs on back bending with a much different perspective and from a much different point in my practice. I encourage you to take a look at those as well. Not to mention, a magazine dedicated to Ashtanga’s Intermediate series, including the beginning back bending section, which is now available online, below:
It’s no wonder many of us have tighter hip flexors. The name says it all – this part of our body has a pretty distinct function, after all: flexion of the hip, with sitting being the most common state of that action. This tension helps keep our pelvis tilted in a way that positions our spine upright while we sit at our desks, drive our cars, eat our meals, etc.
Further, the argument is often made that many years in Primary series only reinforces this pattern. I might counter, however, that is more in how we practice forward bending that creates more undo tension. For example, someone with tighter hamstring might be inclined to “pull” themselves forward. It’s near impossible to pull yourself into a forward fold without tensing the hip flexors at the same time. Thus the harder you pull, the more tension you create in a part of the body already prone to holding on.
Backbending is not flexion, contrary to its name. Backbending is extension of the back body, namely the spine. But in order for the back to extend, the front must also lengthen also and allow the pelvis to also adjust its position comfortably. Mind you, this should all happen in a way that is both integrated and balanced because when it doesn’t, there is pain.
So what happens when the hip flexors cannot extend along with the spine? David Keil explains it best:
That tension pulls on the front of the pelvis, taking it in the direction of an anterior tilt that is now associated with hip flexion. As a result, the harder you press up into the backbend (wheel pose), the harder tight hip flexors will pull on the front of the pubic bone. This is probably the cause of 80 percent of people’s sensation of compression in the back while doing a backbend. The Functional Anatomy of Yoga
So the idea for these preps is to bring more extension into the front of the hips before without putting the spine into a more vulnerable position. Interestingly enough, if we take a look at each set of preps, you’ll see – they look an awful lot like shapes from the beginning of Intermediate. And why, in some cases, it may indeed make sense for students to practice at least these preps if not the actual poses, even before being able to drop back or stand up in a back bend. (I know, heresy, right? Please reread my original disclaimer).
This first set begin from virasana (hero pose) and then move into the extension, as shown below:
From David’s own personal research in practice:
I asked the question, “How little do I need to do to make a difference? How can I be sure that there is a direct relationship between the amount of pressure I feel in my low back and my hip flexors?” To test my hypothesis, I did some research. First, I did a backbend to feel how much pressure and tension was in the hip flexors and the lower back. Then I stretched my hip flexors by coming into virasana, which stretches the knee end of the quadriceps.
I moved into a modified supta virasana to increase the pressure on the hip end of the femurs. Then I pushed my hips up into the air to put even more pressure on the hip end. Guess what? When I lifted into another backbend, I felt less pressure in my lower back. Functional Anatomy of Yoga
In David’s book, he pictures just one of the two exercises shown above. The rest are not shown, but I’ve seen David explain both in workshops and in the Mysore room, when appropriate. But really, same concept. The first one resembles a modified ustrasana (camel pose) and feels amazing. The second is far more challenging and just as these won’t be necessary for everyone, this one may not necessarily be possible either.
Still, I’ve found both very helpful for me and thus I am sharing per chance they may benefit you also.
Note from DK
Let me just leave you with this final word from David. Something I learned from him more vital than back bending preps is the importance of self exploration and research. Don’t assume – experience is everything. And of course, there is never just ‘one’ way.
I’m sure there are many ways to prepare the body for backbends. You should experiment to determine how much your hip flexors are involved in your lower back compression. It can bring a new level of awareness of where you want to focus your energy. David Keil