Five Pillars Yoga

Posts Tagged ‘Backbends’

Yoga Lab: Camel Pose

Full wheel, Urdhva Dhanurasana, with only your feet and hands on the floor and lots of space between your back and the ground, can be a little intimidating. Camel, or Ustrasana, is a great way to ease into back-bending. Grounded and dynamic, it offers many stopping points along the way for practitioners at any level, and, when you’re ready, the option to drop back into full wheel like a piece of spaghetti.

Why do it?

Backbends are powerful medicine. They can function like a yogic cup of coffee, drawing your energy in and up and making everything a little bit clearer and more vibrant. They’re also heart-openers in disguise: as your spine curves and back muscles fire, your heart gets (energetically) cracked wide open and intentionally exposed. Knowing what a physically exposed heart feels like on the mat makes finding an emotionally open one off the mat an easier and more familiar practice.

tumblr_lqnpkfFRei1qg46ogo1_500Here are more of the benefits: 

  • Shoulder, chest, and quadricep opener
  • Energy booster
  • Mood improver
  • Throat opener
  • Psoas stretch (the psoas is a major muscle group in the hip flexors that gets a lot of work but not a lot of love)
  • Back strengthener
  • Abdomen and chest opener
  • Entire front body stretch, from the ankles up through the throat


Here’s how to do it: 

1. Come to your knees with your legs hip-width apart. Tuck your toes under and flex your feet. Place your hands on your hips and put your thumbs on your sacrum, the broad triangular bone at the base of your spine. Stack your hips over your knees and internally rotate your thighs toward the midline. Use a prop: To find inward thigh rotation, place a block skinny-ways midway between your knees and pelvic floor, short end sticking out. Squeeze! Think of shooting the block back behind you, like a piece of Pez in a Pez dispenser.

Go Deeper: For more bend, enter the pose with your toes untucked and the tops of your feet on the floor.

2. Energetically draw your tailbone toward your knees and reach the crown of your head toward the sky, creating space between your vertebrae.

3. Imagine a golden thread anchored to your heart center and, on an inhale, allow it to pull you up toward the sky. Draw your shoulders down your back and your elbows toward each other. Feel your rib cage expand.

4. Keep your chest raised, your core engaged, and your spine long. Gently tuck your chin toward your chest. Think about opening your heart instead of bending your back.

5. Stay here. You’re doing it! Or, to go deeper, lower one hand onto your raised heel and then the other, fingers pointing toward the floor. Keep lifting through your sternum and taking long, deep breaths.

6. If it feels safe for your neck, gently lower your head behind you and gaze at the tip of your nose.

7. Come out of the posture the same way you came into it. Bring your chin toward your chest and your hands to your hips one at a time. Engage through your lower belly and use your hands to support your low back. Rise up slowly.


Use more blocks! Place two at the tallest height in between your heels and lower your hands on to them instead of dropping them to your heels. Adjust the height of the blocks as needed.

Use the wall: To keep your hips stacked over your knees, face a wall and press your legs against it. Come into the pose from here.

Use a chair: Take a cue from Iyengar and use a chair as a prop. Drape your hands back onto chair legs and lower your neck onto the back of the chair (with a folded up towel for maximum comfort vibes). For total security scoot the chair against a wall.


Yoga Lab: Heart Openers

The transition from summer to fall calls to mind incredible harvests, warm evenings and lovely weekends under the sun enjoying our favorite outdoor activities. This time of year also marks the return back to school, work and commitments, which can lead to an influx of stress as life speeds up and new routines take shape. A thoughtful high school teacher who came to yoga class recently put it so well: “Summer was a time where I was learning to be with myself in a healthy way… now my challenge is to be with other people again and this is when my yoga practice is really important.”


One way to create a graceful transition as life speeds up is to practice heart opening postures. During practice, we can allow the mantra love and be loved to be our guide. The way we relate to other people reflects our relationship with ourselves… so the practice of opening our hearts and cultivating nonjudgmental self-awareness during yoga practice can support healthy relationships off the mat.


Heart openers, also known as front extensions and more commonly referred to as backbends, support both psychological and physical health. Iyengar recommended heart opening postures to alleviate depression and anxiety, because these postures relieve the tension that builds up around the heart and they stimulate the thyroid and pituitary glands, energizing and balancing the entire body. Heart openers stretch across the shoulders and the chest, while opening the hip flexors. They also strengthen and tone the muscles in the back, arms and legs.


As you move into heart opening postures, imagine lifting and opening your heart, expanding across the chest, rather than bending over backwards. Like many postures in yoga, this offers a wonderful metaphor to support life. On a very practical level, this prevents over-stretching (and crunching) the flexible part of the lower back.


Three Tips For Heart Opening Postures:


  1. Warm up before moving into heart opening postures.
  2. Lift through the chest to avoid crunching the lower back: think “front extension” rather than “backbend.”
  3. If you have back or neck injuries, some heart openers can be helpful, but other postures should be avoided. Research individual postures with yoga journal’s step by step instructions to learn more and prevent injury. And check out this additional article by yoga journal to protect yourself in backbends.


The art and science of yoga invites you to learn from your direct experience and observe the effects in your body. To maintain inner peace and allow your loving heart to guide the way in life, check out this heart opening sequence by yoga journal.


Go deeper with this video: