5 Yoga Backbends That Work to Mobilize a Contracted Spine

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Photo: Kyle Miller
We live in a world filled with back-contracting activities. We hunch over a computer to work, crunch our faces over our cell phone screens, and slouch on a couch to stream Netflix. This is why doing the opposite with your back is literally crucial to your spinal health... and why backbends in yoga are a practice that you should try to do as often as possible.

"Backbends are the antithesis to what our computers and phones are doing to our posture," says Kyle Miller, a yoga guru and co-founder of Love Yoga in Los Angeles. "As we sit, slump, and round towards our machines, we distort our spinal alignment, we take our heads forward in space, and we narrow the collarbones and front of the chest. We're literally closing ourselves off."

The opposite of hunching over, backbends in yoga move your spine into an extension for a much-needed stretch. "They stretch and broaden the front of the body and help us fight the effects of sitting all day," says Miller. Backbends work by drawing your shoulder blades together and forward, so that your postural framework can better support our organs (which means you can breathe better on top of standing more upright). Yoga instructor Katie Baki adds that backbends restore a nice curve along your entire spine, and increase shoulder mobility and extension of the hips. "In a backbend, you're stretching the anterior chain, or front, of the body, and strengthening the posterior chain, or back, of the body," she says.

Yoga backbends are stretches that you should try to do every single day. "This is especially the case if you're sitting at home all day long," says Baki. "Something as simple as reaching your arms up overhead, pressing your hips forward, and gazing upward is a great backbend that you can do anywhere."

If you aren't able to do the various types of back-bending poses that exist in yoga, Miller points out that supported backbends are just as effective (and feel just as soothing on your muscles). "They give the body time to really let go of the habitual patterning, and they're accessible to everyone." All you'll need for these is a yoga block.

How to do 5 spine-stretching backbends in yoga

1. Supported bridge: Miller recommends this pose, which really helps to open up both your back and your pelvis (another hotspot for tightness). Her tip? Stick a block at medium height underneath your pelvis as you lie down onto your mat, feet flat on the floor, knees bent. Stay for up to five minutes as you breathe.

2. Supported fish: "This is the most targeted backbend for the 'shell on our backs,' which is the rounding of our spine," says Miller. Put a block on medium height at your bra line, and add a second block to support the back of your head, either on the highest height or medium height (though Miller notes that flexible yogis may not need this second block). Melt onto the blocks as you lie on your back, breathing into your ribcage. Allow your collarbones to spread wide.

3. Cow pose: Many yoga flows incorporate cat-cow stretches near the beginning, and cow happens to be a type of backbend. In tabletop position, place your wrists under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Inhale as you drop your belly towards the ground and pull your chest through your arms. "Lift your tailbone up towards the ceiling, gaze up, and take about five deep breaths," suggests Baki.

4. Cobra pose: This backbend is done while lying on your stomach. Bend your elbows and place your palms down underneath your shoulders, and hug your elbows in towards your body. Extend your legs, pressing the tops of your feet into the mat. Press the pubic bone down, and then pull your hands back towards your front hip points. Inhale as you lift your chest up off of the floor. Find some extension or straightening through the arms as you bring your shoulders down. Baki recommends five breaths through this pose.

5. Camel pose: Baki also loves this backbend pose, which involves kneeling on your mat with your knees and feet hip-width distance apart. Place your hands onto the back of your pelvis, fingers pointing down. Hug your elbows in, rotate your thighs slightly inward, and pull your tailbone down to lengthen your sacrum. Inhale as you press your hips forward and lift your chest up. Gaze up towards the ceiling. Take five breaths. "If you're comfortable in this position, you can progress to full camel pose," says Baki. This involves the same pose, but bringing your hands back towards your heels.

Another key spinal stretch that you should try is to just hang (seriously). And this is how to use a foam roller for spine decompression

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