To succeed in life, joked country singer-actor Reba McEntire, You need three things. A wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone.
True enough and you may be blessed with the first and the last but what about the backbone? Your spine needs more than wish and whimsy. It needs care, attention. And exercise.
And what’s one of the better spine-smart ways to move forward in life – –while opening up your heart chakra for greater love and compassion? Try bending over backward. Backbends (which yogis classify as heart openers) have the power to counteract all those daily activities that involve bending forward (carrying the baby, picking up the dog, retrieving groceries, sitting (maybe even slouching) at your computer, looking down at your phone book or your dinner plate—all these mindlessly executed maneuvers compromise your posture and spinal alignment in both the short run and the long run. Rx? Slipping a backbend or two into your day might help bring your body back into balance, lift your spirits, strengthen and lengthen not just your spine, but your shoulders, chest, and hips. And the benefits are not just physical. Backbending also helps relieve tension, tightness, and pain. It even upgrades the quality of your sleep, suggests the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.
Backbends energize by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. And if that backbend is done while lying on the stomach ( see the Cobra below) the pressure on the pelvis stimulates the secretion of testosterone, a hormone important for the reproductive health of both sexes. These two physical actions combine to produce the psychological benefit of boosting self-esteem.
And that’s not all.
When we bend over backward, we compress the back of the body where the kidneys and adrenal glands are found, helping to reduce cortisol, the body’s chief stress hormone, notes the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center. Training your spinal muscles every day (as in simple backbends) will teach them to support the spinal column in the way that nature intended.
Then there’s the heart chakra effect.
The heart chakra, (Anahata in Sanskrit), found at the center of the spine at heart level acts as our flashpoint for compassion, empathy, love, and forgiveness. This chakra (one of 7 so-called energy centers that run along the spine) governs the human sense of trust, peace, generosity, and connectedness, as well as change, transformation, and emotional boundaries. The heart chakra, according to yogic wisdom, expresses feminine energy and its fitting mantra is “I love.”
That’s a lot of health enhancement for just five or ten minutes of your 24 hour day!
Even better, you can do a backbend standing, kneeling, prone on your belly, or supine on your spine. And no, you don’t have to be a practiced yogi or a daredevil circus performer to get it right. Back bending can be short, sweet, and simple, and take no more time than brushing your teeth.
Here’s a guide to 5 no- equipment-needed, heart-opening spine-stretching moves to get you safely going.
BOW DOWN BACKBEND
- Start in tabletop position, and then lower down onto your elbows.
- Keeping hips in line with knees, straighten your arms in front of you.
- Place your forehead on the mat and gently sink your chest toward the mat.
- Close your eyes and breathe in deeply for (at least) five breaths as you hold the stretch then, lower hips to heels into Child’s Pose.
UPSIDE DOWN TABLE
- Sit with feet flat on the floor, in line with your sit bones.
- Place hands behind you with fingers facing forward.
- As you inhale, lift your body up. Engage your abs and let your head relax. Check your alignment: Your chest, hips, and thighs should be parallel with the floor.
- Hold the position, taking a few deep breaths.
- To release, slowly lower elbows to the floor, then lower chest and hips back to the mat/floor/blanket.
- Lie on your stomach with toes pointed back and hands under shoulders. Keep elbows close to the body. Anchor down into the floor through your pelvis and the tops of the feet.
- Inhale and press palms into the floor as you lift your head and chest. Pull your belly in and up.
- Keep elbows slightly bent and hugged in close to your body.
- Roll shoulders back and down. Keep neck neutral.
- Exhale and slowly come back to the floor. Keep hands aligned under shoulders.
Note: Keep a slight bend in your elbows and make sure they’re pointed behind you.
BRIDGE OR UPWARD BOW
- Lie on your back with knees bent. Place feet flat and parallel
- Lengthen your arms along your sides.
- Inhale, pressing the backs of your shoulders and the soles of your feet into the floor as you lift your hips.
- Hold this position for a few breaths.
- Come out of the pose by gently lowering your hips back down to the floor.
- Start in tabletop position, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
- Keep the spine neutral and press palms and fingers into the floor.
- As you inhale, lift your chest toward the ceiling and sink belly toward the floor. Lift the head and look straight ahead.
- Exhale, coming back to tabletop position.
Note: pad the knees if needed and come down to forearms if wrists are stressed in this position.
And if you are beginning back bending exercises to soothe not prevent an aching back, what else helps?
How about a remedy that has been with us since the 17th century, once the most popular medicinal in England: an evening soak in a warm (not hot) tub with Epsom salts (1-2 cups). Twenty minutes should do the trick.