Intelligent Backbends Actually Require Less Thinking! ~ Jules Mitchell

Via on Nov 5, 2011

My yoga teacher often says “When the body finds its own true alignment, it will remember it and try to find it again and again.”  Wise words, aren’t they?

In my years of teaching yoga anatomy, I often see that the intense curiosity about the mechanics of the asana often leads to over thinking.  The result is that the student’s critical mind takes her out of her body and away from the experience of the pose.

How am I able to identify this?  Well, it’s what I do in my own practice, of course.

Backbends, in particular, are the poor victims of the over working mind.  Too much “push” is something like a long day staring at a computer screen – a lot of outward energy without enough inward energy to balance it.

Today’s anatomy discussion will focus on the hip extension during Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward facing bow).  This is only one small component of the pose, but I will adhere to more wise words from my teacher, “we learn in layers.”  There is a great benefit to breaking down any subject into manageable pieces and then repeatedly returning to them for review.

I can always return with a Part 2 and take a look at the shoulder actions.  (Comment below if you want to see that happen!)

Getting into the pose

In Urdhva Dhanurasana the hip joint extends, which means that the thigh bones move posteriorly to the pelvis.  Our primary hip extensors are the powerful gluteus maximus and the hamstrings.  The gluteus maximus originates at the ilium and the sacrum and inserts on the femur and the iliotibial tract (IT band).   Its strength often leads to overuse and gripping, both are qualities we hope to escape in a yoga pose.  Remember the outward and inward energy I wrote about above?

An important thing to note is that the gluteus maximus also externally rotates the thigh.  So, if you powerfully engage your gluteus maximus to pull the hip into extension as you press up into upward facing bow, you might also externally rotate the femurs.

But why does that secondary function matter?

Well, it could lead to some or all of the following:

  • - The feet turn out
  • - The butt squeezes together and gets hard
  • - The groin also gets hard and pushes out
  • - The spinal extension gets stuck somewhere in the lumbar spine and doesn’t sequence through all the segments of the spine.
  • - Over time, this could cause discomfort in the low back and the sacroiliac joints.

This is why you often hear teachers say for example, “feet parallel”.  They are essentially encouraging less external rotation at the hip.  But when you are upside down and backwards “feet parallel” is much easier to translate into an action.

If you only think about the outcome of the pose, the push is what drives you.  Instead, balance the effort. Think less about where you are going and more about what you doing.  You might find backbends invigorating rather than exhausting.

Managing the pose

It’s always the large and superficial muscle groups that get us moving and drive the outward energy in a yoga pose.  Yet it’s the deeper, stabilizing muscles that rein us inward and give us an opportunity to experience and feel.  Isn’t this what we love about yoga?

Warning:  the following tips are not easy!  Accessing what’s within is always a challenge J

- Invite the hamstrings to the party.  The hamstrings are also hip extensors and would be happy to share the work load with the gluteus maximus.

- The quadriceps are also featured guests and help straighten the legs (since the hamstrings are also knee flexors) by signaling to the hamstrings to work the upper fibers more than the lower fibers.

- Encourage the anterior fibers of the gluteus medius and the gluteus minumus to contribute.  These muscle fibers are internal rotators and when turned on will counter the external rotation caused by the gluteus maximus.

- As an added bonus, both the medius and minumus are also abductors will help stabilize the pelvic girdle.

How does your lower back feel now?

Can you feel the intensity of this deep backbend but also the calmness of the mind as it navigates through your body?

You don’t always have to “get there.”  The beauty is in the experience.


Jules Mitchell lives her yoga in Hermosa Beach, CA.  She is a biomechanics graduate student and leads Yoga Anatomy courses nationally for yoga teachers.  Jules is also the director of the South Bay Yoga Conference or you can contact her here

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23 Responses to “Intelligent Backbends Actually Require Less Thinking! ~ Jules Mitchell”

  1. Jeff says:

    Rich content and entertaining! Thanks Jules!

  2. Sarah says:

    Love the explanation on how to get out of the butt muscles and into the leg muscles. Please! Write another on the shoulders. Would love to hear about the upper body in upward facing bow!!

  3. ARCreated says:

    so engage the glutes? I was taught to NOT engage the glutes???

  4. Jules says:

    Great question @ARCreated! Yes..teachers often say "relax the glutes" just like they say "feet parallel" in an attempt to actually get you to do what I was explaining: more hamstrings, more glute med. and min. and less glute max. But that's a lot of anatomy for the average student, especially when upside down and backwards. So…soften the glutes works just fine. But now you exactly what the cue really means, right? Thanks for commenting. love, love, love. Jules

  5. melissa says:

    inviting my hamstrings to the party, Jules. thanks for the insightful article!

  6. Yariv says:

    Thanks Jules- great article- really learned a lot.

  7. Sue says:

    Jules is a great writer & teacher. so very informative & helpful…. she is a rising star.. no doubt!!!!!!!!

  8. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    I love this and without a doubt want to hear more!!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  9. Valerie Carruthers Valerie Carruthers says:

    Awesome, Jules. Bring on the shoulders!

  10. Shawn says:

    A great post. Understanding the mechanics of a pose is very useful because it gives you a better idea of the complexity (and beauty) of what the body is doing in a yoga pose.

    I think, however, that for most people, this amount of detail will actually encourage them to overthink. Rarely do I cover anatomy when I teach, because when I am upside-down in a backbend, I find it distracting to think about specific muscles. Instead, I focus on the joints, the groups of muscles that control the movement of the joints, and the breath.

    For many people, the secret to successful backbends is more preparation. If you have to "push" yourself into a backbend, then you are not ready for the pose. Spend more time opening up the back, hips and shoulders, as well as strengthening the core and arms.

    When your body is properly prepared for Urdhva Dhanurasana, you should be able to breathe yourself into the pose. Think of the movement as an extension of the inhale. When you enter the pose, you should feel almost as if you are floating upwards, with very little effort. And once you are up there, feel free to exit on the next exhale. If you can't breathe, you need to move out of the pose.

  11. Megan says:

    A wonderful article–it really encouraged me to think about the difference between engaging muscles and areas of the body vs. "hardening" them ( esp. glutes) . Your breakdown spoke to me in a way that offered a different way of thinking, one that I can apply to my daily practice (logically) until my body begins to memorize the experience. Thank you for your insight and I eagerly await another article.

  12. Maxine says:

    Brilliant article!

  13. [...] Intelligent Backbends Actually Require Less Thinking! ~ Jules Mitchell [...]

  14. Jules says:

    @Shawn, you make an excellent point about diving this deep into anatomy and over thinking. I teach Anatomy trainings and I find myself telling people all the time not to worry so much about the specific anatomy. (I hope I don't put myself out of a job!). But for some people anatomy works very well as starting point for a deeper inquiry into the asana. For some, it triggers an over active mind. So we all dance together and share the gift that yoga is, finding our own way through the experience.
    Thank you sooooo much for your detailed comment. I very much appreciate the dialogue and the feedback.
    Namaste!

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  16. anna says:

    so informative! thanks for changing my approach to backbends! :)

  17. Great piece! I'm VERY interested in the shoulders…. ;)

  18. Christine says:

    Please do post more on this topic! Thank you for the information and very helpful tips. I will incorporate them into my practice and my teaching. We are working towards a Backbend by New Years in my Wed. night class – perfect timing! Thanks Jules xoxo

  19. Masha says:

    Great article! I finally got the answer why do I have this discomfort in my SI joint.. Can't wait to read the part on the proper shoulder alignment…

  20. JoLynn says:

    I used this info last night in class- the result was fantastic!! Thanks Jules…some tips on the shoulders would be awesome!!

  21. Devfitz says:

    Great information Jules. Your article gives me a much clearer picture of how to fully enter into this mysteriously subtle pose.

  22. google says:

    Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

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