Bend baby, bend
If you have ever practiced with me you know I love spine work.
The bending, strengthening, and stretching of the spine has been a bit of an obsession for me since before I even had a yoga practice! As a kid I would stand with my back facing our living room couch and I would do drop backs into the cushions while watching TV. I was just drawn to bend back, it felt so damn good even when I was just a curious little ten year old. Grew up dancing and performing in musical theatre and that supplied me with enough consistent stretching throughout my childhood and teen years that I was able to stay quite flexible, especially through my spine. But it wasn’t until I found yoga that I began to truly study this part of my body and realize the massive role it played in the overall health of my physical and energetic system.
Our bodies are designed to move and bend with ease yet we have a culture that leads us to spend a vast majority of our time hunched forward and sitting relatively still. Spending so much time in these positions makes the body rigid and susceptible to aches, sprains, even injury. Overtime this hunching habit also causes damage to the overall alignment of the spine. Lucky for us with the use of spine bending it is possible to correct the alignment of your spine and heal this vital part of the body entirely.
Now let’s dial in and get more specific. For both the physical and energetic body bending forward and backward have different benefits that I want to highlight.
We’ll begin with forward bends:
When moving in this direction we stretch many muscles. At the beginning of the pose we feel the opening throughout the muscles of the legs including the hamstrings, gluteus maximus and calves. The quadriceps contract and this helps release tension in the hamstrings so they can elongate. As you go deeper into the posture your internal organs (lungs, heart, digestive organs) will be compressed. The core muscles engage which frees up the muscles along the spine to stretch and release. In these forward bending postures, we are encouraging blood flow back to the brain and upper regions of the body. When performed correctly forward folds can help relieve headaches, insomnia and reduce high blood pressure. Digestion also improves due to the gentle massage received by the internal organs.
Energetically speaking, forward folds are so lovely. We feel safe in this position, secure in our body and balance. You come into a place where you are literally curling into yourself like a turtle pulling himself into his shell. Including a forward fold in your day can help you eliminate anxiety, depression, and panic attacks and that’s only the beginning. The spine is in control of the nervous system, it has the millions on millions of nerves in the body under its command. When we bend forward we open up space along the back of the spine between each of the vertebra which increases circulation to all of your nerves. This helps maintain the health of the nerves and it soothes the system entirely. Emotionally this is very supportive and it allows you to enjoy a peaceful mental state. In my life off the mat I have found that when I am experiencing a moment of high anxiety a nice long forward can bring me back down to earth and significantly calm the mayhem that is occupying my mind.
Now we will get into my all time favorite, backward bending:
As you move into a backbend the legs and muscles along the back body are strengthened, the abdominal muscles are stretched and you breathe during the whole posture. Maintaining a controlled even breath when you bend back increases the amount of oxygen in your lungs as the front side of the body is expanding. When the chest opens it encourages the shoulders back and draws the scapulas together. This counteracts any shoulder slumping habits and helps to correct your posture. Overtime with the help of backbends you can return your spine back to its natural alignment alleviating head, neck, and back pain. The organs on the back side of the body get some much needed love in this posture as well. The kidneys are compressed allowing fresh blood and oxygen to flood in after you release the bend. This type of systematic flushing for the internal organs has been included in the practice of yoga for thousands of years.
Moving on now to the energetic body where backbends are absolutely incredible. As backbends physically open the chest and upper body energetically they stimulate Anahata (the Heart chakra) challenging us to open up to our lives fully, our emotions, our experiences and even our relationships. Embracing ourselves to the fullest potential, being vulnerable and present in our truth. As humans we are comfortable rounding forward, protecting our heart from the world, and backbends do the exact opposite of that. We expose our heart here, building trust with yourself and finding the courage to overcome fear. As we bend back we are moving the energy up the spine, cleansing the nervous system and clearing energetic blockages along the way. When this strong flow of energy breaks through an energetic block we often release stored emotions that can range from fear, anger, and sadness to happiness, joy and love. It not unusual to feel these emotions return momentarily as they pass through the body once more during release. Try not to panic when things get intense, backbends are a phenomenal tool that will strengthen you mentally and emotionally in ways you would never expect.