This is a foundational back bending posture. While it is beneficial in its own right, this pose is also very useful to learn how to use the muscles to support the body in other more advanced back-bending postures. It is also a relatively safe posture that can easily be modified for beginners but can be as intense as you chose to make it, which makes it great for a yoga class.
It is natural to think that the main thing required for back bending is a flexible back, but the most important is the strength and flexibility of the hips and shoulders to be able to support the spine through healthy movement.
Important! This posture has a tendency to compress the lower back and the neck if not executed properly. If you have very tight hip flexors (anterior pelvic tilt) then you might not be able to tilt the hip and all the force will go into your lower back compressing it. Similarly, if the shoulders are not flexible then you might not be able to move your shoulders away from the ear and keep the shoulder blades in a proper position resulting in compression in the neck. In both cases, you might need to do some other basic stretches before this pose, or modify as necessary so that both the lower back and neck are safe. Check this article for opening your upper back and shoulders.
The photo below shows the result of forcing yourself into the posture without understanding the alignment. Especially notice the anterior pelvic tilt resulting in the compression of the lower back.
This photo below shows the alignment and energy flow when the hips are tilted properly bringing the stretch to the hip flexors and the quadriceps. This way more space will be created in the lower back.
The lower back can also get compressed if you are overly flexible compared to your strength. Try not to rely on your flexibility and work on creating as much space in the spine as possible by using your muscles.
Learning to do the proper hips movement: To practice this forward movement of the hips try ushtrasana using a wall (one of the most important movement for doing other advanced back bending)
- Kneel down, facing a wall about 6 inches (15cm) away. With the knees hip-width apart, bring the hands to the hips and tuck the tailbone under.
- Engage the core, lift the chest and push the hips forward trying to touch the pelvic bone to the wall.
- You can try to bring the hands to the heels and see if you can keep pressing towards the wall.
You can do this posture in a passive way, which might be useful if you are overly muscular and inflexible, but for most people active stretching is both safer and more effective. In ushtrasana you want to use the muscles to lift the chest up and out, and the glutes to tilt the pelvis and push the hips forward to create as much space in the spine as possible. To modify you can tuck the toes under and lift up the heels, or add blocks under the hands to extend the reach of the arms and decrease intensity. Make sure that you keep the breath strong and powerful throughout, if you find that you cannot breathe in this position that is an indication that you have pushed too far.
- Kneel down in vajrasana and spread your knees about hip-width apart, the shins parallel to each other.
- Inhale, lift your body upon the knees, bring your hands to the hips dropping your tailbone down to open the front of the hips.
- Roll the shoulders back, open your chest and lift the chin.
- Exhale, push the hips forward beyond the knees.
- Inhale open the chest and lean back, slowly bring your hands to the heels one by one.
- Exhale, press the heels with your hands to move the hips forward while opening and lifting the chest as much as possible. Breathe deeply
- Keep your shoulders down and the neck long, and your back muscles engaged
- Stay in the posture for a few deep breaths.
- To come out of the posture inhale deeply, press the tops of the feet down into the ground to lift the weight off the hands, bring them back to the hips and lift the chest up. (Try not to let the hips drop down until you have lifted the body completely)
- Exhale lower the hips to sit on the heels and lean forward to rest in child’s pose.
- Stretches the whole front of the body, quadriceps, hip flexors, abdomen, chest muscles, and neck.
- Strengthens back muscles, neck, Quadriceps in their lengthened position, pelvic floor, and muscles around lungs.
- Opens throat chakra, heart chakra, and helps you understand their related emotions.
- Elevates mood.
- Very tight hip flexors
If you have prominent anterior pelvic tilt, or just very tight hips from running or similar activities you may want to work on poses that just focus on the hips to avoid compression in the lower back.
- Very rounded upper back
Kyphosis, rounded upper back, or very tight shoulders may make it difficult to align this pose and could cause lower back pinching. Try these upper back stretches first.
Avoid this posture completely
- Neck pain/problems
Make sure to create space in the neck by keeping the shoulders down, if it is painful, you can try looking forward, or just avoiding this pose until the neck is improved
Try to understand the movement of the posture and where your blockages are, approach each posture with awareness and create modifications as needed.
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