The problem with backbends that probably most of us have experienced at one time or another is a sore lower back. Backbend-induced pain in the lumbar region is the result of the fact that when we backbend with insufficient awareness and alignment, we tend to concentrate the movement in the lumbar spine, following the path of least resistance. The lower back is much more mobile in this direction than the upper back, in part because in its natural position it already forms a gentle backbend. The thoracic spine (the upper back) is limited in its back-bending due to the fact that its natural curvature is that of a forward bend. This is compounded by the fact that each thoracic vertebra is attached to the purposefully rigid ribcage via two ribs, whereas the lumbar vertebrae are only connected to each other. (The shapes of the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae also differ in several ways that facilitate backbending in the the lumbar spine and limit it in the thoracic spine, but that level of anatomical detail is better discussed in an anatomy workshop.) Lastly, if you have been slumping forward in front of a computer for the past couple of decades, then the ligaments and muscles on the front of your upper torso have shortened to make backbending the upper back even more challenging.

But if you want to deepen your backbends while keeping your lumbar spine safe (and help reverse the problems associated with a slumping posture) you really want to get your upper back involved in backbends: We only have 5 lumbar vertebrae compared to 12 thoracic vertebrae, and if we backbend 45 degrees in the torso and don’t bend the upper back, each lumbar intervertebral joint has to bend 9 degrees. If we can get even 2 degrees of backward extension out of each of the 12 thoracic intervertebral joints, the amount that each lumbar intervertebral joint has to bend is reduced to about 4 degrees, while maintaining the same overall backbend. 

How do we increase the mobility of the upper back to distribute backbending forces over the entire torso? To borrow an image from yoga teacher Roger Cole, if you have a bicycle chain with a stuck link, and you grab a foot-length of chain and bend it back and forth, all the flexible links will move, and nothing will happen at the stuck link. But if you drape the frozen link of the chain over a fulcrum (i.e. a steel rod) and apply a bending force, you can concentrate the force where you want it and get the frozen link unstuck. We will use this principle this week to open up the upper back using props as well as selective muscle engagement to find more freedom in backbends, while keeping the lower back safe.

Try it now: Roll a large towel or small blanket into a cylinder about 15-20 cm (6-8”) in diameter and longer than your back is wide. Place it on the floor, sit about 40-50 cm (1.5’) in front of it, and recline over it so that the bottom halves of your shoulder blades rest on the center of the roll. The unconscious tendency is to place the lower back on the roll, but that is completely counterproductive, so make sure your lower shoulder blades are in contact with the roll. Release your arms out to the sides, palm facing up, and surrender into the stretch for 2 to 3 minutes. If the stretch gets too intense, come out early, or decrease the diameter of the roll by using a smaller towel or by making the roll longer. If you find that your neck is hyperextending in this position, place a small pillow or a second towel underneath the head. Savor the spaciousness in the front of the chest, and when you are ready to come out of the pose, roll onto one side and sit up slowly, using your arms for support. Back in seated pose, notice if you can maintain some of the spaciousness in the front of the chest that you experienced while draped over the blanket roll. Try to do this while engaging your back muscles only as much as necessary to open the front of the chest, without collapsing the back of the ribcage instead. After all, when you are in simple seated pose, you don’t want to be slumping, but you aren’t doing a backbend, either.