Catch 22: What’s Your Spine Sacrificing For Deep Backbending?
Ever wonder what exactly is happening to our spine when we do deep back bends? Like most practitioner, I strive for poses like Scorpion, Drop-Backs (from standing to Upward Bow Pose) and Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose). The euphoric sense of touching my toes to my head (or my very protruded yogi bun) propels me to step on the mat and push my limits a little further each day. However, as time goes by, I start to wonder if I’m sacrificing something greater for a deeper back bend.
First let’s take a quick overview of the physical structure of the spine.
Compartments of the spine
The spine connects our legs to the skull, allowing the body to stand upright, bend and twist while protecting the spinal cord from injuries. Divided into 5 parts: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum and coccyx, each part of the spine has different functions, range of motion and curvature.
Cervical (neck): The main function of the cervical is to support the head. There are total 7 cervicals numbered C1-C7. The cervical spine has the greatest range of motion and allows motions like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as well as rotating the head sideways to almost 180°.
Thoracic (mid back): Total of 12 vertebrae, T1-T12, the main function of the thoracic spine is to hold the ribcage and to protect the heart and lungs. The range of motion is very limited.
Lumbar (low back): The main function of the lumbar is weight bearing. The 5 lumbar vertebrae L1-L5 have a large vertebral body to absorb the stress of carrying or lifting heavy objects. The lumbar has a higher degree of mobility but not as much as the cervical spine. Normally, this is where the back bending happens.
Sacrum: There are 5 sacrum bones that are fused together. The sacrum is responsible for connecting the spine to the hipbone (iliac). The spine together with the iliac bone forms the pelvic girdle.
Coccyx: Known as the tailbone, the coccyx is made of 4 fused individual bones. The purpose of the coccyx is to provide attachment for ligaments and muscles of the pelvic floor.
The five parts of the spine form a natural S-shaped, the cervical and lumbar being slightly swayed (known as lordosis) and the thoracic, sacrum, and coccyx are slightly hunched (known as kyphosis). Like a bamboo swaying in the wind, the normal curves of our spine facilitate the constant weight transfers as we walk, bend and twist. Also as we breath, the changing shape in the lungs and abdomen causes subtle flexion and extension in the spine. Therefore, the spine can never be totally ‘straight.’
Each vertebra is separated and cushioned by the intervertebral disc. The main purpose of the intervertebral disc is to provide shock absorption keeping the spine from rubbing together. The outer ring of the disc is called annulus fibrosis, which is tough and sturdy offering protection; the gel-filled center of the disc is called nucleus pulpous, which is designed for shock absorption.
The hollowing spinal canal in the vertebrae contains the spinal cord, fat, ligaments and blood vessels. The spinal nerves exit the spinal cord and pass through the vertebrae foramen to branch out to the body.
As we can see, the vertebral spine is critical for body movement and spinal cord protection. Now let’s take a look at what’s happening when we perform back bends.
Like eating a hamburger!
Simply speaking, every primary action (agonistic) comes with an opposite action (antagonistic). A backbend consists of compressing the posterior side of the spine while extending the anterior side. Imagine taking a big bite of a hamburger with a thick patty and lots of fillings, the fillings will move away from your mouth. Perhaps some fillings would even fall out depending on how you hold the burger. Similar to our spine, the nucleus of the intervertebral disc would move towards the front of the spine as the back of the spine is being compressed. Luckily, under healthy circumstances, the annulus fibrosis and the longitudinal ligaments prevent the disc from slipping out!
The community effect
Generally spinal problems occur from repeated use and/or without proper techniques. Most often, I see yoga practitioners dumping their weight into their low back when bending back. Safer measures are to stiffen the spine slightly (also known as bracing) and then create space between the vertebrae. Next is to engage the pelvic floor (specifically the Mula Bandha) and finally slowly bend backwards. Bernie Clark, an experienced and insightful Yin yoga teacher in Vancouver, has a fantastic article on Bracing and Spacing. Here he dives into the importance of stabilizing the spine before moving it. We often think the stabilization of the spine requires only the rectus abdominis (your abs) but that’s not true. Professor and researcher Stuart McGill, from the University of Waterloo states that the “true spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, ilioicostalis and multifidus.” (1) Very well, we can think of these muscles as part of a ‘back bending community’. When one member short fires, the community weakens as a whole. A way to compensate is for another muscle to fire stronger, this would help stabilize the spine in the short term, but over time, the extra workload will weaken the muscle and you’ll risk injury.
As we can see now, stabilizing the spine is important to prevent injuries, but how about mobility? After all, us yogis want to know how to do a perfect scorpion…
According to Bernie Clark, the spine is safe to move in non-neutral position when held without any load or accompanied movements. Furthermore, when the spine is loaded or moving, it should be stabilized. Therefore, in our yoga asana practice, it’s safe to perform most seated postures including forward folds, recline twists and lateral bends. However, we get into the danger zone when performing postures that require a large range of motion under load, for example the Camel Pose, Upward Bow Pose, Drop-Backs and Scorpion. Thus we find ourselves in a dilemma with the inverse proportion found between stability and mobility. Although there are ways to strengthen the muscles to withstand the load but it does not negate the fact that mobility can only be increased with decreased stability. So here’s the million-dollar question:
How much stability are we willing to sacrifice for a deeper back bend?
Essentially, the answer is it depends…
What is your intention of doing a deeper backbend? Whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, it’s important to be clear with your motivation. A gymnast maybe performing a deep back bend to qualify for the Olympics while a construction worker is rehabilitating his spine from an injury, thus a deep backbend does not serve him whatsoever. A grandmother is moving her spine daily to lubricate her joints to prevent arthritis; and a small child is flipping upside down and bending backwards to explore his curiosity in life.
1. What would a deeper backbend bring you ultimately? (ie: joy, health, success, peace, pride...)
2. Would that ultimate goal help or inspire you and others?
Get clear on your purpose of attaining a deeper backbend and if it serves you for the better, seek the proper techniques and go for it.
1) Back Fit Pro, www.backfitpro.com, Selecting Back Exercises by Stuart McGill
2) Bernie Clark, www.yinyoga.com, 3 Things I learned From a Spine Biomechanist, Stuart McGill