A deep backbend, like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow pose), can be a glorious expression of balanced strength and flexibility; but cranky joints and stiff muscles will sometimes make the reality more exhausting than exhilarating. Warming up your muscles first not only will help backbends feel vibrant and energizing, but will protect your spine by opening your hips, chest and shoulders.
The Spine in Backbends
Your lower back and neck bend backward easily; however, the spine of your upper back, called the thoracic spine, is much less supple. When tight chest and belly muscles bind the thoracic spine, your lower back and neck may bend too much -- a common catalyst of pain in backbending poses. Likewise, if your shoulder and hip muscles aren't warmed up, your lower back and neck can suffer. Because so many muscles are involved in backbending, start with a full body warm-up. Iyengar yoga teacher John Schumacher, writing in "Yoga Journal," recommends practicing Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose, as well as standing poses, before moving on to preparatory backbends like Shalabhasana, or Locust pose, and Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose. (See Reference 4)
A rippling six-pack may look sexy, but overly-contracted abdominal muscles pull down on your rib cage, limiting your thoracic spine's flexibility. If the pectoral muscles of your chest are tight, they can block movement in your upper ribcage. To stretch your abs and pecs, try Setu Bandhasana, or Bridge pose, and Ustrasana, or Camel pose. The muscles that extend your spine in a backbend are the erector spinae muscles. Practicing Locust pose and Cobra pose will strengthen them.
The latissimus dorsi muscle of your back pull your arms down. You may need to stretch them, along with your pecs, to reach your arms overhead in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Activating your rotator cuff muscles and the muscles that control your shoulder blades will help keep your shoulders safe during the movement. Practice poses like Downward-Facing Dog and Pincha Mayurasana, or Forearm Stand, to stretch the pecs and lats while strengthening your shoulder muscles.
Get your rear in gear, too. Your gluteal muscles -- with the help of your adductors, or inner thigh muscles -- extend your hips when you backbend. For the glutes to do their job, your hip flexors, including the iliopsoas on the front of your hip and the rectus femoris on the front of your thigh, need to let go. Tight hip flexors prevent your hips from opening fully, which can put stress on your lower back. Include Virabhadrasana I, or Warrior I pose, in your warm-up to lengthen your hip flexors.
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.