How to Safely Deepen Backbends

There’s a core concept to deepening any yoga posture: honesty.

Yoga is about your relationship with yourself, and to go deeper in any pose requires you uphold that relationship with integrity. Regardless of strength and flexibility, if you don’t learn how to listen to your body, the point of a bigger backbend becomes moot.

The Hallmarks of A Safe Backbend

While some level of stress occurs is needed to push into new and deeper territory, if the stress is too acute, you’ll get shut down (or worse, hurt!). Go little by little, learn to listen to your own body and wisdom. Then check in with the alignment actions listed below.

To create safety in all backbends you need to do these three things:

  • generate length in your spine
  • power up your upper back to lift your chest and your pelvis to support your low back
  • coil over, not back, to avoid collapse

A Hands-Free Approach

An honest way to train yourself into deeper backbends is to practice hands-free. When you remove your hands from backbends, you’re forced to work your core and spinal muscles. You can’t cheat how deep you get when your hands aren’t pushing you past what you can hold with integrity.

My favorite yoga pose to practice hands-free back bending is Ustrasana, or Camel pose. This is an excellent tool for strengthening your spine, as well as to build towards a dropback into Urdhva Dhanurasana, more commonly called Wheel or Upward Bow pose.

Ustrasana (no hands), Monro Beach, South Island, New Zealand

Ustrasana : Monro Beach, New Zealand

Here’s how it works in Ustrasana.

Generate Length

  • Press down from your hips into your knees and feet to create stability.
  • Place your hands at your heart, or bend your elbows by your sides —don’t put hands on hips or reach for your feet.
  • While your spine is still vertical, elongate the back and sides of your body and telescope up through the crown of your head.
  • Continue these actions to generate length in your spine as you move deeper.

Use Your Power

  • Learn how to access the muscles of your upper back between your shoulder blades  —specifically your rhomboids— to gain more power. (Check out my post on cactus arms to learn how)
  • Roll your outer shoulders back and squeeze your upper back muscles
  • Dramatically puff up your chest towards your chin, as if a string is pulling your sternum to the sky.
  • Engage your pelvic floor and lower abdomen, through mula bandha, so your low back is supported from within.

Curl Up & Back

  • Finally, begin to curl back, going slowly so you can keep all the previous alignment pieces —be honest with yourself and stop if it hurts.
  • Imagine there’s a giant beach ball behind you  and you’re curling up and over it rather than collapsing into it.
  • Lean your hips forward to counter balance the weight of your torso as it moves back, just make sure you push your inner thighs back to keep your legs from turning out.
  • Go only so far back in the pose that you can get back up chest first, with the back bend still intact and without the help of your hands.


Other good hands-free backbends to practice these techniques are: Shalabasana, Bhujangasana with hands hovering above the ground, Makarasana with hands behind the head, Matsyasana with hands up, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana with your back leg straight, and arms overhead and Anjaneasana.


Editor’s note: this article was previously published in February 2014 but has been revised and updated