Pain-Free Backbends Just By Using Your Legs

If I were to give only one clue for pain-free backbends it would be this: keep your legs parallel.

While simple from external appearances, this instruction can go so in-depth that I’ve spent entire weekends unpacking the topic during yoga teacher trainings. What you need to know is that your legs govern your low back in everything from standing yoga poses to sitting at your desk. How you use your legs in a backbend is vital to steadiness and ease in all of your practice. Let’s break down essentials of parallel leg work —what some would call “inner spiral”— you can do in any yoga pose, especially backbends.

1. Power To The Midline

You could just move your feet to parallel and be done, but not much other than the outer form of your yoga pose would change. I want you to be pain-free, and that takes moving your bones. This means you need to engage a deep strength that takes you out of old habits and into freedom.

Key actions begin with full power being brought to the midline of your body. Physically this is often called “hugging in” or “muscular energy.” Metaphorically it stands for calling all of yourself back to the moment and becoming a conscious creator of a pain-free body. Here are a few actions to stimulate your strength:

  • Press the inner edges of your (parallel) feet down.
  • Spread your little toes to activate the muscles of your outer shins.
  • Isometrically drag your feet towards each other to engage your adductors.
  • Squeeze a yoga block between your feet, your calves or your inner thighs.
Notice the racing stripe along my shins —a key sign that they are hugging in! Locust at Kelso Dunes : photo by A. Cassebeer

Notice the racing stripe along my shins —a key sign that they are hugging in! Locust at Kelso Dunes : photo © A. Cassebeer

2. Maintain Lumbar Curve

What often happens in a backbend is you contract your gluteal muscles so strongly that it pushes your butt forward or tucks your tail under. It narrows and flattens your low back and pushes your knees apart. Instead, you need to press your upper, inner thighs back (down in the case of Wheel, Bridge or other upward facing backbends) to re-align the deep muscles of your belly, specifically the ilio-psoas.

This is the largest muscle to attach the legs to the pelvis/torso, and it originates, largely, along the lumbar spine and inserts at the upper, inner thigh bones. When you push your upper thighs back, it seats your ilio-psoas within your pelvis. This creates freedom in the low back, a natural lumbar curve, and for many, a sense of calm and presence. Consider these actions in your next yoga practice, whether back bending or not:

  • When standing, micro-bend your knees, then move your upper thighs back so they stack above your knees and ankles, not forward in line with your toes. (Check from the side by looking in a mirror)
  • Tilt your upper thighs back until your bum sticks out a little and your low back curves in and up.
  • In a backbend, drop your hips a tad, as if sitting into a chair.
  • Move your torso forward to allow your pelvis to move back, this will give more mobility in both the legs and the lumbar spine.
  • Imagine lifting your outer hips and thighs faster than your pubic bone.

Groins back also means pubic bone back. Wheel in Tuolumne Meadows : photo © A. Cassebeer

3. Width For Freedom

Whenever you feel overwhelmed or unnerved, there’s a strong tendency to contract both physically and mentally. A better response, and one you need to train yourself to have, is to create space.

In a backbend, compression and over-contraction in the low back eliminates space and exacerbates pain. Learn to widen across the bowl of your pelvis and low back to create spaciousness. This can free your sacro-iliac joint and bring a sense of openness to your entire lumbar region. Some principles to apply are:

  • From toned inner thighs (see #1) press your femurs apart, but keep hugging your knees in.
  • Widen laterally from the midline of your sacrum.
  • Move your sitting bones and ilium wider (initiate action by first hugging midline, and second widening your upper, inner thighs).
  • Broaden your low back.
  • Use your breath to expand the posterior side your ribcage.
Forearm Wheel at Glacier Point : photo © A. Cassebeer

Forearm Wheel at Glacier Point : photo © A. Cassebeer

 4. Read “Healthy Low Back”

While not specific to backbends, my latest book is all about maintaining a healthy lumbar region for a lifetime. The focus is on fundamentals, daily actions and familiar postures, rather than on fancy poses. The e-book is written for iPad and is complete with full-sized images (just like you’ve come to expect and love here), interactive, layman-friendly anatomy, suggested sequences and hints for changing mental and physical habits for a return to freedom. Click the image below to read more or to purchase this life changing book.


Click the cover image to learn more.