Yoga talk: Backbends are sit ups as a concept might be a hard sell but here I go. The word backbend leads people down the wrong path as far as I am concerned. It makes a lot of yoga students think that they are ultimately trying to bend their body in half.
Backbends are really about spinal extension and I fully understand that while in class it might be more accurate to say “now onto spinal extenders”, “let’s do some backbends” sounds much more enticing.
But images are powerful and influence students a lot so I think it is important to understand the exact nature of what we call a backbend. There are four curves in the spine—two of them move into the core of the body and two of them round towards the back of the body. The curves that go into the center of the body are the lumbar curve (lower back) and the cervical curve (neck). These two curves are meant to be mirror images of each other and they both allow for movement to the front and back plane of the body. The can both flex and extend. The two other curves don’t have the same range of motion. The sacral curve (part of the pelvis as well as the spine) is five bones fused together so obviously there is not a lot of movement there. The thoracic curve (the upper back) can flex but has very little extension or “bend”. This part of the spine is designed to protect the heart and lungs so a lot of movement is restricted to prevent injury.
That means that when we do backbending postures much of the work of bending is coming from the lumbar curve with support from the cervical curve. This is where the sit up comes in. For the back of the body to extend rather than just bend, the front of the body needs flex or shorten. If the front of the body doesn’t flex or shorten the bones of the lumbar curve can literally compress into one another. When you bring the image of a sit up into the equation and the rib cage moves towards the pelvis shortening the front of the body, the back of the body will begin to extend.
It might just be a question of semantics to call a backbend a situp but the next time you are in wheel pose, try to imagine that you are going to do a sit up and you will hopefully feel an extension of the lower spine that brings space and energy to the pose.