10 Back Extensions to Help You Feel Longer & Taller
In many cases it is the poses and movements we avoid, that we need the most. For me it was always back extensions (back bends). Because I didn't know how to do them without it hurting my lower back. I avoided them or faked them. I didn't think my body would ever bend that way. Once I learned the following tips about practicing back extensions they became my ally in my back care.
* Join us in studio for a Happy Backs class!
How to Practice Safe and Healthy Back Extensions
We use the term back extension rather than back bend because your focus is to feel a sense of length rather than how far you can bend backwards or how high you can lift off of the floor.
Back extensions should feel expansive through your whole spine, not just the lower back. If you feel it all in the lumbar spine; slightly engage your core to stabilize the lower back; lift into your chest and make your upper back do more of the work.
Focus on the position of the pelvis. When your warming up do poses that open the front of the pelvis and hips. Just like we do in forward folds, when we do back extensions the movement comes from the pelvis and the hips.
In between each of the back extensions practice your downward facing dog pose with slightly more length between your hands and feet and walk out the legs. (You may also want to rest in child's pose for a few breaths in between as well).
For this practice we will be exploring the 'chest to abdomen breath'. Begin with the exhale; like the Diaphragmatic Breath we are feeling the exhale in the lower ribs. Relax the abdomen as you inhale and breathe into the centre of the chest with a sense of expansion. As you inhale into the centre of the chest find a sense of length through the spine and a lift into the upper back. As you exhale maintain the sense of length as the lower ribs come back in.
1. Dandasana Heart Open
Sit in Dandasana; feel even on your sit bones, legs extended feet flexed. Neutral pelvis; if you need to sit on a folded blanket or cushion, so the pelvis is supported. Bring your hands behind your hips, thumbs turned towards the front of your mat. Press into your hands to lift and lengthen the spine. Lift the sternum (chest) towards the ceiling. Find your Chest to Abdomen Breath (C2A). Hold for 3-6 cycles of breath.
2. Low Lunge
Step your right foot forward and lower down to your left knee. If your knee is uncomfortable, fold your mat over for extra padding under your knee. Your front knee is at a 90 degree bend. Stack your spine; hips, shoulders, knees. Gently engage your left glute/hamstring to open the hip/pelvis. Invite the bottom of your pelvis forward as you lift the chest.
C2A Breath for 3-5 cycles of breath each side
3. Low Crescent Lunge
Come back to your low lunge on the first side. Inhale lift to your arms (palms face each other). Feel the crescent arch through your whole back body; from your back heel up to your finger tips. Inhale to lengthen; exhale draw the lower ribs in and lift your chest.
Breath here for 3-5 breaths each side.
4. Mountain Pose
Stand tall in mountain pose. Feet parallel; neutral pelvis (front of hip bones face forwards), hips, shoulders, ears. Brig your palms together and rest your thumbs on your heart centre. Find your C2A breath. Use your thumbs to lift your chest. Let your shoulders relax and ever so slightly invite your scapula (shoulder blades) towards your spine.
Take your hands to the backs of your hips. With your thumbs in gently use them to press the top of your glutes away from your lower back as you lift and lengthen from this space. Continue to lift the chest as you breath here for 3 cycles of breath.
5. Baby Cobra
Make your way to a prone position. Laying on your stomach bring your hands under your shoulders. Press the top of your feet firmly into the mat and gently engage your legs. Where is your pelvis? Think about your mountain pose and lift the front of your hips towards the bottom of your ribs. Lengthen your sit bones away from your lower back. As you inhale lengthen through the toes and the crown of the head so much that the chest slightly lifts. Stay low and breath with a sense of length and extension through the whole body.
Hold for 3 cycles of breath 3 times
* Did you remember to do your down dogs in between? Here's your chance if you forgot.
6. Sphynx Pose
Set up is the same as our baby cobra. Hold opposite elbows and inhale into the centre of your chest to lift your upper body. Stay here or bring your elbows closer, keeping them shoulders width apart. Remember if your feeling it all in your lower back to draw your lower ribs in and lengthen into your upper back. Hold your sphinx pose for 3-8 breaths (start at 3 and as you practice gradually and gently increase the number of breaths you hold your poses).
We are setting up the same for one more series of poses. This time bring your hands back by your hips with the palms down. For version #1 inhale into the centre of your chest as you raise and lengthen your upper body. Press your palms into the floor as you reach your toes back keeping them firmly planted on your mat. #2 Inhale to lengthen and lift reach your fingers back and invite your scapula in towards your spine, continuing to reach your toes back. #3 lengthen and lift so much that even your feet come off the floor.
Any discomfort in your lower back or any where else, come out of the pose and reset. Practice version #1 before moving on to #2 and finally #3. Hold which ever version you are practicing for 3 breaths; release and rest for 3 breaths and repeat 3 more times.
For this version of Cat/Cow focusing on our C2A breath. Inhale into the centre of the chest with a sense of expansion as you open and lengthen through the front body. Exhale draw the lower ribs in and you open and lengthen the back body. Again focusing more on the length in both flexion and extension rather than then bending or rounding of the spine.
Repeat for 3 - 5 cycles of breath.
For this version of our Happy Backs Camel have the toes tucked or use blocks beside the heels of the feet. Have your knees hips width apart and have your hips over your knees. Maintains this position in the lower body as you bring your hands to the back of your hips. Like we did in mountain pose. Gently use the hands to keep the hips forward as you inhale and lift the chest. Stay here if this is enough; holding for 3 cycles of breath. If you can keep your hips forward and over your knees try reaching your right hand back for your heel. Hold for 3 breaths, bring your right hand back to your lower back/hip and try on the left side. Rest in between if you need to by untucking the toes and sitting your hips to your heels.
Laying on your back have your feet hips width apart. Walk your heels in and reach your fingers to your heels. Feet are parallel. Take a peek at your knees (are they turning in or out?); knees should be straight from the hip joints. Inhale to lift the hips. For this version reach the sit bones towards the backs of your knees to open the hips rather than engaging the glutes. As much as you can relax the glutes and lengthen to lift instead of being overly engaged. Ensure your weight is in your feet and the back of the shoulders; not the neck.
Stay here or interlace your fingers underneath and roll your shoulders under to lift in to the upper back. Where ever you are in this pose hold for 3-8 breaths. Remember to stay moderate with your holds if you are a beginner and build yourself up to holding longer with more practice.
On an exhale slowly lower your hips and pause here. Stay here and observer the sensations in your body. Back extensions can change the energy in your body. Inhale through the nose, exhale through your mouth and let go.
Stay here or give yourself time to relax in Savasana for as long as you like.
May your inner beauty, grace and strength reflect in your outer being.
Sign up for a Happy Backs class in studio!