Years ago, I heard Judith Hanson Lasater pose this question: “Who should practice backbends?” Her answer: “Anyone who’s growing older.” This, of course, means everyone. Most of us spend our days bent over one thing or another—desks, electronic devices, counters, etc. Moving our shoulder joints and spines in the opposite direction counters the tendency to hunch forward. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the traditional text that describes the 15 poses that have endured through the millennia, includes only one backbend as essential to asana practice: Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).
When Britain colonized India, they imported British gymnastics to the country, and specifically, to the practice of yoga. So most of yoga’s backbends actually came from the colonizers. That doesn’t mean these imported backbends are not helpful for our bodies, however. In fact, the range of backbends in the current asana canon ensures that there will be at least one backbend to fit every person’s structure.
The Benefits of Backbending
Backbending confers multiple benefits:
- Strengthening the muscles that extend the spine to help us maintain healthy, upright posture
- Expanding the chest and anterior shoulder joints
- Stretching the abdominal muscles
- Lengthening the hip flexors, muscles that tend to shorten when we spend long hours sitting
- Revitalizing the body in general; backbends tend to heat and energize our bodies and minds
Dhanurasana Challenges and Solutions
There’s no doubt that backbends can be challenging. Some people’s structures are made for backbends; others, not so much. We can prep our bodies for backbending, but for some people, a more stable spinal structure will limit how far their bodies will go. The extent to which your lumbar spine will extend is one determining factor. People with a curvier thoracic spine might also find some backbends more challenging. But this is all entirely okay. Anyone, no matter how “deep” your backbends look, can enjoy the benefits.
Dhanurasana can be challenging for people with any of the aforementioned structural qualities. But it’s also easy to modify, using a Yoga Strap to connect your hands with your feet.
How to Practice Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) with a Yoga Strap
- Gather your props: Yoga Mat, Yoga Strap and a Yoga Blanket (optional). If your hip bones are sensitive to pressure, you might want to place a folded Yoga Blanket across the center of your mat.
- Lie face down on your mat, with your pelvis on your Yoga Blanket if using.
- This is the tricky part: Bend your knees, drawing your heels in close to your glutes. Place your Yoga Strap around your feet or ankles and hold onto the ends of the strap, one in each hand. Hold the strap taut enough so that it doesn’t slide down your legs toward your knees. Of course, you can avoid this awkward move by having a friend or teacher place the strap around your feet if you’re not practicing alone.
- Lie face down again, but with your knees bent and the strap ends in both hands.
- Root your pelvis into the floor and lift your chest and legs, walking your hands toward your feet to keep the strap taut.
- Keep your head in a neutral position, facing straight ahead. There’s a tendency to throw your head back in backbends, but in prone backbends in particular, this can strain your lumbar spine. This is because when your neck is hyperextended, your hyoid bone pushes forward and disengages your digestive organs. You can read more about this here.
- Stay in the pose for 5 to 10 deep breaths. When you’re finished, return to a prone position. If you want to practice Dhanurasana again, keep ahold of the strap. If not, let go and relax with your head resting on your hands.