Backbends are an essential component of a balanced yoga routine, as they help build strength and flexibility.

If you’re beginning your yoga journey or want to add backbends to your stretching routine, get started by learning some gentle backbends. Slowly and safely you can build up to more advanced backbends. It’s also OK to continue solely with backbends for beginners.

Read on to learn more about the benefits, safety tips, and sequencing suggestions for gentle backbends.

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Backbends provide a variety of benefits that improve your physical and emotional wellbeing.

Physically, they counter the daily activities that involve bending forward or compromising your posture and alignment. Movements, sedentary positions, and gravitational forces can cause misalignments and pain in your body. Backbends help bring your body back into balance.

Backbends strengthen your back, shoulders, chest, and hips. They lengthen your spine, increase flexibility, and improve mobility, which helps promote good posture. Plus, they help relieve tension, tightness, and pain.

Furthermore, the invigorating nature of backbends heats and energizes your body, which relieves fatigue. In fact, you may want to avoid strong backbends right before bed, as they may make it difficult to fall asleep.

It’s said that yoga backbends can release energy stored in the spine. This may awaken kundalini energy, which is the spiritual energy found at the base of your spine. Backbends are said to stimulate and open up your heart chakra, which is located in the center of your chest (1).

Often referred to as heart openers, backbends are said to deepen your capacity for love, compassion, and connection.

To maximize the benefits of backbends, practice them with awareness and caution. Always warm up your body before attempting backbends and cool down afterward. In addition to warming up your spine, do exercises that target your upper body, hips, and thighs.

To prevent injury, do a maximum of three backbends in a row, especially if you’re working on advanced poses.

Also, avoid holding challenging poses for too long. To spend more time in the pose, you can hold it for a shorter amount of time and repeat it 1–2 times. Give yourself time to fully relax in between repetitions.

Be sure to only stretch to a comfortable degree, and remember, this can vary daily for any individual.

Don’t strain or force yourself into any position, and stop if you feel pain. If you experience neck discomfort, adjust your neck to a comfortable, relaxed position. To ensure comfort, make sure you can maintain a smooth, steady breath the entire time.

What’s more, avoid backbends or practice them under the guidance of a qualified teacher if you’re pregnant or have frequent headaches or a neck or back injury.

Finally, talk with your doctor before starting a yoga program if you take medications or have a medical concern, including high blood pressure, arthritis, or osteoporosis.

Start with the easiest pose and progress toward more advanced poses. Focus on stretching and strengthening your back, as well as your upper body, hips, and thighs.

Doing so improves your flexibility and range of motion, which helps you go deeper into each pose. Practicing simple backbends helps you develop the strength, alignment, and awareness necessary for deeper backbends.

Cow Pose (Bitilasana)

Cow Pose warms up your spine, promoting blood circulation and flexibility. It stretches your neck, chest, and hips, as well as strengthens your back while relieving tension and tightness.

You can do Cow Pose on its own or as part of a flowing movement with Cat Pose (Marjaryasana).

To perform:

  1. Begin in tabletop position with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Yield your weight evenly between your front, back, and sides. Keep your elbows slightly bent. Maintain a neutral spine and gaze toward the floor.
  2. As you inhale, fill your belly with air and lower it toward your mat. Gaze straight ahead or up toward the ceiling. Hold this position for 5 breaths.
  3. On an exhale, return to a neutral spine.
  4. Next, flow into Cow Pose and back to a starting position with each breath. Continue this movement for up to 1 minute.
  5. Rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana) for up to 1 minute. Return to a neutral spine.
  6. As you inhale, move into Cow Pose.
  7. On an exhale, round your spine and tuck your chin into your chest to come into Cat Pose (Marjaryasana).
  8. Flow between Cow Pose and Cat Pose, allowing your breath to guide each movement.
  9. Continue this flow for up to 1 minute.

Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)

This gentle backbend elongates and strengthens your spine, promoting flexibility and mobility. Sphinx Pose stretches your shoulders, provides a gentle opening across your chest, and lengthens your abdominal muscles.

The passive nature of this pose allows you to focus on alignment and muscle activation, which can be more challenging in advanced postures.

The arm position preps you for poses like Cobra (Bhujangasana), Low Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana), and High Plank (Utthita Chaturanga Dandasana).

The supported position of the Sphinx Pose puts less pressure on your spine, allowing you to hold the pose for longer. This helps you lengthen and strengthen your spine before moving on to advanced backbends.

To perform:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs extended straight back. Touch your big toes together and turn your heels out to the side.
  2. Place your elbows under your shoulders, your forearms on the floor, and your palms facing down. Activate the muscles of your lower back, glutes, and thighs.
  3. As you inhale, raise your chest and head. Activate and lift your lower abdominal muscles to support your back.
  4. Elongate your spine, relieving any compression in your lower back. Imagine a line of energy moving from the base of your spine and out through the crown of your head.
  5. Breathe deeply, gaze straight ahead, and stay active in the pose.
  6. Hold this position for up to 1 minute.
  7. On an exhale, lower your body to the floor.
  8. Turn your head to the side and relax. To relieve low-back tension, gently shake your hips from side to side.
  9. Repeat 1–2 times.

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

This active backbend elongates and strengthens your spine, which promotes flexibility, mobility, and good posture.

It stretches your shoulders, chest, and abdomen, as well as activates your abdominal, gluteal, and leg muscles to build strength. Notice if you’re compressing your lower back and focus on lengthening your spine.

To perform:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs extended straight back.
  2. Touch your big toes together and turn your heels out to the side.
  3. Place your hands under your shoulders, palms down, with your fingers facing forward.
  4. On an inhale, slowly raise your head, chest, and shoulders.
  5. You can lift partway, halfway, or fully up.
  6. Keep your elbows slightly bent.
  7. Gaze toward the floor or straight ahead.
  8. Hold this position for up to 1 minute.
  9. On an exhale, lower your body back down to your mat.
  10. Turn your head to one side and relax.
  11. To alleviate low back tightness, gently move your hips from side to side.
  12. Repeat this pose 1–2 times.

Locust (Salabhasana)

This pose activates your back, core, and leg muscles. It also elongates your spine, opens your chest, and stimulates your digestive organs.

Locust pose teaches you to align your body, which improves your posture and prepares you for deeper backbends (2).

Experiment with various arm and leg positions to target your muscles in slightly different ways.

To perform:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs extended straight back. Touch your big toes together and turn your heels out to the side. Rest your arms next to your body with your palms facing up or down. Rest your forehead gently on the floor.
  2. On an inhale, lift your head chest, and arms. You can lift partway, halfway, or fully up. To deepen the pose, lift one or both legs. Gaze straight ahead or slightly upward.
  3. Hold this position for up to 1 minute.
  4. On an exhale, slowly lower to the starting position.
  5. Turn your head to one side and relax.
  6. To release low-back tension, gently move your hips from side to side.
  7. Repeat this pose 1–2 times.

Fish (Matsyasana)

Fish Pose strengthens your neck and upper back, which improves flexibility and posture. It stretches your chest, abdominal muscles, and hip flexors. Pay attention to how your alignment changes as you experiment with various arm and leg positions.

To perform:

  1. Sit with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands underneath your buttocks with your palms facing down and your fingers facing forward.
  2. Gently draw your elbows in toward the center and open your heart center. Then, lean back onto your forearms and elbows, keeping your chest open. Allow your head to tilt back.
  3. Hold this position for up to 1 minute.
  4. Then release, lie down on your back, and relax.

Supported backbend

This passive backbend provides a gentle, supported chest opening while promoting relaxation. Experiment with leg positions such as Half Lotus Pose (Ardha Padmasana) or Butterfly Pose (Baddha Konasana).

To perform:

  1. Use yoga blocks and cushions to create an inclined support along your spine and under your head. If it’s comfortable, position your head slightly lower than your chest.
  2. Relax your arms to the sides with your palms facing up, or place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
  3. Breathe deeply, allowing yourself to completely relax.
  4. Focus on releasing tension as you allow your body to sink into the floor.
  5. Hold this pose for up to 10 minutes.

Honor and work within your limits related to flexibility, strength, and range of motion. Be aware that yoga poses, especially backbends, may cause you to feel a range of emotions. Understand that this is normal and allow yourself to experience the feelings that arise.

Focus on lengthening your spine and opening your chest. To prevent compressing into your lower back, elongate your spine as you imagine a line of energy running along your spine and out through the crown of your head.

Sequencing tips for backbends

If you do a backbend-themed yoga class or sequence, close your practice with gentle twists and forward bends.

Next, do poses with a neutral spine, which allows your spine to stay long and straight without straining your body. This alleviates stress and tension in your back and spine.

Examples of neutral spine poses include:

  • Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
  • Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
  • Reclined Butterfly Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
  • Knees-to-Chest Pose (Apanasana)

Backbends are a wonderful way to build strength, flexibility, and mobility.

Start with these beginner backbends to slowly and safely build up a routine. Listen to your body and work within your limits.

Over time, you may move on to intermediate or advanced backbends, or continue to practice gentle backbends. Either way, you’ll reap the benefits of these expansive poses.