Unless your spine is abnormal, your vertebrae can structurally extend (bend backward) 135 degrees and flex (bend forward) 145 degrees from S1 (sacrum) to C1 (cervical). Muscularly, it’s probably not quite there but here are some thoughts, cues and info to help you increase back flexibility and strength without compromising muscular support. Note: if you can’t breathe in your back bend, you’re doing it wrong.
Back flexibility is not useful unless it is muscularly supported. When will passive back flexibility be functional and safe? Never.
Rather than bending back, why not bend the front-back? When we think back bend, our first thought is just that: the back side bends and goes back. <<Ever bent a plastic straw?? If your length is strong and supported in the front, your back is supported as well.
For what purpose do you want a more flexible back? Are you trying to do a back bend, improve strength, relieve upper/lower back pain? Decide at what level you want your back to be flexible.
Back bends should be a serious abdominal workout. If you don’t feel your abs after 3 breath cycles, go through the cues again.
Keep weight evenly distributed in the feet. Many yogis overuse their low backs in back bends. By distributing the weight evenly (not only in the toes) your pelvis will neutralize.
Pull your knee caps up. AKA engage your thighs. This helps length and Pranic flow up the front of the body
Place the back of your hands on your sacrum. If in the initiation of the backbend you feel your low back moving, bending, or crunching…SHTAP! Start over and initiate from the top of the head. Hopefully this will start you bending from the top rather than the middle.
Think of connecting from the pubic bone to the forehead. When you’re in your back bend, imagine a zipper originating from the pubic bone, running up past the belly button, up the sternum, neck, chin nose and finally up to the forehead. Take a full breathe cycle here to feel the power of this length. This is what I call a front bend.
Place 3-4 fingers on the back of the neck. When you arch back, your 3-4 fingers should remain comfortable, not squished, behind the head.
Lead with the most distal point. If hands are down, the crown of the head leads. If hands are above the head, lead with the thumbs. In a closed chain back bend (hands and feet on the floor) I suggest leading with the tail bone and press equally into the floor with hands and feet.
Connect the pelvis to the ribs via the abdominals. Your abs are the best protection for your back. In any kind of back bend, engage the abdominals and pull the ribs and pelvis towards one another. Again, think of the plastic straw… would you rather your torso be a bendy straw or a regular bent plastic straw. When you use the abdominals, you get well rounded (hehe) support for the lumbar spine.
**This information is a combination of years of dancing, Pilates, yoga, anatomy & physiology and most recently, my 200 YTT at BodhiYoga.**