If you’ve ever taken one of my classes, or even if you simply know me outside of the studio and have yet to take that first step into the hot room, or a yoga studio in general, you know that one of my favorite things to teach is back bending. There’s something inspiring and absolutely cool about the process of connecting to the spine in a new way and learning to trust your own body as you go deeper and deeper into each back bending posture.
My favorite thing to hear when talking with students one-on-one about how to approach their back bends is when it clicks for them and they utter the word, “Awesome.” And awesome in a way that is landed verbally with true awe and not in a flippant “Yeah, yeah, cool man,” kind of way. Awesome. Because our spine, our entire body for that matter, is that: Awesome.
Let’s break it down. Your spine is made up of 33 irregularly shaped bones called vertebrae. Each vertebra has a hole in the middle through which the spinal cord runs. The spine can be divided into five different regions, from top to bottom:
- You have 7 cervical vertebrae that support your head and neck and allow you to nod, shake your head, and touch your chin to your shoulder in Triangle Pose.
- Your have 12 thoracic vertebrae which are attached to your ribs, which is why Full Locust Pose can be difficult to improve upon, as this is the most inflexible part of the spine.
- Your 5 larger lumbar vertebrae carry most of the weight of your upper body and provide a stable center of gravity when you move.
- Your sacrum is made up of five fused vertebrae which make up back wall of your pelvis
- Your coccyx is made up of four fused vertebrae. It is an evolutionary remnant of the tail found in most other vertebrates. (97% of all other creatures on the earth don’t have a back bone at all!)
The spinal column has 3 very important functions – it supports the body’s weight, provides flexibility for movement, protects nerve roots and fibers and forms a protective surrounding for the spinal cord – the main pathway of communication between the brain and the rest of the body.
Your spine is the “lifeline of your body”, and has the responsibility of carrying more than a million electrical nerve messages between your brain and your body every day. As I often like to reiterate in my classes from Dr. Brian L. Tracy’s Pure Action Research lecture, the spine is much more than a messenger for the brain. It is an extension of the brain within the body. The spinal cord can function independently. It does not always require signals from the brain to do its job. In some situations, the spinal cord functions on it’s own and has the ability to send important messages directly to the muscles.
In the Bikram Yoga Series, also known as the 26 & 2, or Traditional Hot Yoga, there are back bends aplenty, as bending backwards is known as good healing therapy for many back issues. The biggest cause of disability in the working population is attributed to spinal disorders. Too many hours spent sitting at a desk or in the process of continual forward bending takes it’s wear and tear on the spine, making us miserable in so many ways. Forward bending causes the front of the vertebrae to move closer together, which forces the inter-vertebral disks and spinal nerves back, bringing on back and neck pain. One good way to heal the spine and counteract all of that forward motion: backward bending.
Here are some of the benefits of having a regular back bending practice:
- Backward bends help counteract the damage of bad posture, helping you stand taller and with better form the more it becomes part of your everyday routine.
- They help stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response in the body) and prepares the body for action.
- They realign the spine and thus, assist in relieving back pain, scoliosis, and frozen shoulders.
- Back bends compress the kidneys across the back and promote proper kidney function.
- They are known to relieve stress and anxiety and build confidence and self-esteem.
- Back bending helps you face your fears and go beyond them. The process is scary at first, but you soon learn bending backwards is the natural range of motion for the spine.
As you heal your spine you heal your life. Each part of the spine is linked with an emotional feeling or thought pattern as outlined by Louise L. Hay in her classic book, “You Can Heal Your Life.” Hay claims that disorder in the body is linked to a thought process that has been repeated over time. In other words, it starts with a thought pattern first and then indicates physically in the body. In her book she discusses ways in which to reverse the thought pattern, but as you make your spine stronger and increase flexibility through backward bending, you might find yourself releasing some of the following beliefs, thus healing up an area of your life emotionally and spiritually. (This may not apply to everyone, but it is interesting and something to consider.)
Other cool spine facts:
- The spine alone includes 120 muscles, 220 ligaments, and 100 joints.
- 25% of the length of your spine is disc. Intervertebral discs, are pads of tough, fibrous cartilage, sandwiched between your vertebrae. They are the shock absorbers. The combination of these discs and the S-shape of your spine prevent shock to your head when you walk, run, or jump.
- The spinal cord is so flexible that if it were to be separated from the body and bent, it would form two thirds of a perfect circle.
Ready to heal up and feel great? Go after those backward bends when you hit the hot room. Talk to your instructors about correct technique (remember you are there to heal, not harm). And if you haven’t started a regular yoga practice what are you waiting for? Find a studio – clean, welcoming, and friendly – that works for you. You can heal you own body through a regular yoga practice and back bending is just the beginning!
Check out the Facebook Page later on this week for some simple instruction on proper backward bending technique!
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