Backbends: The Head to Heart Connection
Where you look matters.
It’s a metaphor for keeping your eye on the “ball” of the positive things in life. Where you focus helps guide you where you want to go, not toward what isn’t serving you. It helps you gather information and make educated decisions about where you are and what to do in the moment. But, if you only move from your head you will become out of balance.
There’s another part of you that can feel or intuit for the alignment that is healthiest. This is the part of you that is open, with child-like enthusiasm, to courageously try new things, to play, to express love and to celebrate the beauty of life.
This is your heart. Too open, though, and you will have weak boundaries and the inability to speak up for yourself. The heart center needs to be in connection with your head for you to find balance both on and off the mat. When you do, what’s in the center—your throat, voice, confidence and ability to communicate clearly—will be empowered.
Backbends are a category of yoga poses that challenge this connection. Often, you end up looking and leading with the head or eyes while the heart stays closed and fearful. Most people are especially guilty of this in Camel pose where the head is collapsed back, closing off the throat and causing neck pain, or the head is held upright and not a continuation of the spine as it curls back. If you aren’t sure, try talking or chanting Om while you are in the pose —your voice should sound normal!
Moving Head & Heart Together
The action of moving the torso into a backbend is essentially a loop or a circle. You initiate the movement by pressing your head back and complete the circle by lifting your chest up. Here is the breakdown:
- Slide your head and the sides of your throat back until the back of your neck engages.
- Press your shoulders to the posterior and retract your shoulder blades onto your back.
- Draw your shoulder blades down and their bottom tips in, while keeping the sides of your body long. *Try not to just pull your shoulders down, but to really work your lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles to pull on the scapulae down instead*
- Lift your sternum towards your chin and slightly tilt your chin up.
- Continue spinning this loop as you go deeper and deeper in your backbend.
Lengthen Through Your Spine
Once you’ve got this loop spinning, and head and heart are balanced, start to stretch along the length of your spine. This stretching is what happens off the mat, too. When you begin to have confidence in your self-expression, you will naturally extend and stretch into new areas.
- From the core of your pelvis stretch out or down through both legs evenly.
- Keep your shoulder loop spinning, but telescope out through the crown of your head so the whole loop becomes more of an oval.
- Draw your front ribs and waistline back to engage the deep muscles of your middle and to support your lumbar region.
Putting It Together
The fundamental backbend, Wheel pose, can be disorienting to new students. Being upside down and learning to push your arms to straight in the overhead plane is a curious experience. Connecting head and heart, and looking where you’re going can help.
head-heart-looking in the set-up:
- lie on the ground with kneed bent and hands placed by your ears in preparation to push up
- lift your hips, push with your hands and come to the top of your head
- *pause here* and look towards the ground, rolling more towards your forehead by activating shoulder loop
- then, push up and continue to look between your hands on the ground as you come into Urdhva Dhanurasana
length in the pose:
- pull on the ground with your hands to slide your chest forward between your upper arms —this is the same action as lifting your chest towards your chin in the other two poses
- dig in with your feet, activate your hamstrings as if to kick your bum with your heels, and use that power to pull your hips away from your head
- though you are looking at your hands, which means your head is curled back, stretch it towards the ground to create length in your spine
For a detailed and therapeutic look at shoulder alignment read “Healthy Shoulders: A Primer For Stretching & Strengthening”
For more on Wheel pose, go here.