Should yoga backbends make your back hurt?

Camel pose shouldn't feel like crossing a desert of agony. Mala Yoga co-founder Christina Hatgis shares three tips to stay safer—and go deeper.
Christina Hatgis backbending at Mala Yoga in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. (Photo: Mala Yoga)


Who hasn’t experienced a camel pose where you thought your head might fall off? (While not a good feeling, it’s quickly correctable in the moment.) But what about real back pain while doing backends in yoga class? Turns out it’s a common yoga quandary.

“There’s very little that we do day-to-day that encourages a backbend movement in our body. Our whole back-body is generally not in an engaged state,” says Christina Hatgis, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Mala Yoga, where workshops on backbends are often on the schedule. “And then we go to yoga class once a week, and we’re asked to engage it.” Your spine is not like a switch you can just flip on.

The key to avoiding pain and injury, Hatgis says, is learning to engage in a smarter, safer way. If you do it right, you’ll be able to progress into deeper bends, building strength and flexibility that will protect your body in every pose (from chaturanga to conference-room-chair).

“If you’re really grounding down through your shin bones and the tops of your feet, you’re able to maintain more of a lift of your hips over your knees, and now you’ve got some length in your lumbar,” Hatgis advises. (Photo: Mala Yoga)

Here are three tips from Hatgis on how to do better backbends—that won’t make your back hurt.

1. Progress gradually. No, really. It’s easy to lean back and force your body into a shape, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. “I think people have this image of what the final thing should look like, so we forget that there are steps that we need to take to get there,” Hatgis explains. Start slow, instead, only going as far back as feels good for you, and you’ll be able to go deeper every time.

2. Focus on using all of the muscles involved. It’s called a backbend, but your legs and core are just as important as your lower spine. Engaged legs will keep your hips over your knees to maintain proper alignment, protecting your lumbar spine. An engaged core will create stability between your upper and lower body. (Sound complex? A workshop may be in order…)

3. If it hurts, stop. You may be used to the “no pain, no gain” mentality of your boot camp instructor, but it doesn’t apply here. Give yourself permission to come out of a backbend that hurts, even if you feel like the person next to you is judging with their perfect wheel. “It’s one thing to do one more crunch or hold plank for another five seconds,” Hatgis says, “it’s another thing to go deeper in a backbend.” —Lisa Elaine Held

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