When it comes to back bends, I am in happy possession of a cautious nature.
It's easy to get carried away when you see beautiful yogis melting backwards as their spine scribes a perfect bow against a Himalayan backdrop. But listen ~ don't mess with backs. Without good back health every other movement becomes compromised, except maybe blinking but blinking won't help you on and off the toilet.
I am aware that I do not have a flexible back. It's work in progress. In many ways this has been a good thing, because it means that when I practise, for example, Upward Facing Bow (Urdhva Dharunasana) or Wheel Pose (Chakrasana) I go at it slowly in full awareness of my vulnerability. I suspect that if I had one of those spines happy to hang out in Tick Tocks I would have fallen victim to my own careless enthusiasm. Natural flexibility, remember, has to be tended to carefully, like a toddler next to a fish pond.
In Camel Pose, it seems like the spine has to do all of the work. However, it's very much a team effort. With this in mind, it's important that every team member is given its own pre-match pep-talk and drills.
Quadriceps ~ Your whole front body needs to lengthen in Camel Pose and this includes your thigh muscles.
Psoas ~ Put in the simplest of terms, this pair of mega muscles joins your torso to your legs. Technically hip flexors, they actually need to be long and supple to flex the hip correctly. Most of us have short and tight psoas muscles from a sedentary lifestyle which makes back bends challenging. In addition, stress and emotional upset can get dumped here too which can add to the sense of vulnerability when practising back bends (known as "heart openers" for a reason).
Shoulders ~ We need to be able to extend our shoulders in Camel Pose while lifting the breastbone and extending through the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine is more difficult to access than the lumbar spine as the attached rib cage restricts its movement. Good shoulder work beforehand will encourage openness of the chest and persuade the bend to flow through the spine and not get stuck grumbling and bitching about you to your lower back.
Mula Bandha ~ Without engaging the mula bandha the tailbone will be unable to lengthen down and you'll feel pinched in the lower back as the lumbar vertebrae compress. Trust me, this feels rubbish and will promote a low level sense of panic. The mula bandha encourages a lightness and stability through the whole pose
Spine ~ Well, duh.
DO YOUR PREP WORK.
This should go without saying but I know we can all be guilty of rushing the main to get to the pudding. Take your time. Enjoy the process. Prep can be as long as you like ~ for days, even weeks! All is coming!
Here's a suggestion:
Cat/Cow, focusing on moving each vertebra in turn, on the Cow drawing the shoulders back, chest forward
Surya Namasakara C, holding the lunge and cobra for a couple of breaths each, lifting the mula bandha and concentrating on getting the tailbone to lengthen and the pubic bone to roll up towards the navel. Several rounds to get the heat rising and muscles softening
Hero Pose (Virasana), a great prep for tight quads. Sit on a block or two if you can't make it all the way down between your heels, keeping your feet pointing back. If you're comfy here for several breaths, then whip your hands back into Reverse Prayer. Breathe
Reclining Hero Pose (Supta Virasana), easing back onto a bolster or your elbows. Inch your way to a Supta Virasana that suits you and one in which you feel the front body opening. Only go all the way down if you know your knees and lower back are up to it. You don't want a kneecap pinging off and taking somebody's eye out. Oh, and again breathe.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana), to encourage shoulder extension and front body opening.
Half Wind-Relieving Pose (Ardha Apanasana) on each side before both knees together (Apanasana).
You get the idea. Target the parts of the body I mentioned at the start, make sure you're thoroughly warm and maintain a slow, calm breath throughout. Savour each sensation, each revelation, and ask yourself if you need to respond either by moving deeper or backing off. Work with compassionate intelligence.
SADDLING UP THE CAMEL.
You will need: 1 x mat, 1 x blanket, 2 x blocks, 1 x chair (optional), 1 x wall, 1 x positive mental attitude
1. Fold your blanket and place it under your knees. This doesn't make you a wimp. This makes you a yogi with a blanket under your knees. Tuck your toes under or place a block standing on its short end by each foot.
2. From a high kneel with knees hip-width apart and shins parallel, place your hands in the small of your back, fingers pointing down. This adds a nice bit of support as we move deeper. If like me you have long arms relative to torso, you might find this restrictive in the shoulders and/or elbows, in which case switch to hands on hips, elbows drawing back.
3. Press outwards through your knees and shins as if you were trying to move them away from each other. At the same time, roll the inner thighs slightly back. Strong thigh muscles.
4. With 3. in place, bring the pelvis into a neutral position by engaging the mula bandha and abdominals. You're trying to lengthen the tailbone down so visualise your pubic bone curling up towards your navel. Press your breast bone forward without arching the lower back. Hold for three slow breaths before releasing and ease into Child's Pose (Balasana). Repeat until it feels natural.
5. From 4, now engage your glutes and use your inhalation to grow taller through the spine. Begin slowly stretching back. Remember, this is a spinal extension so start at the base of the spine and visualise each vertebra lifting as far away from the one beneath it as possible. Keep your head upright and your gaze level.
6. As you move upwards into the thoracic spine, 5. will feel more difficult. While the lumbar spine is happy to move in this way, the best you can hope to get from the thoracic spine is a straightening from its usual forward curve. This is due to the ribs (see above) and the structure of the vertebrae themselves. Pause here before going any further. Check that your core and bandha engagement are still on point.
7. On the next deep inhalation, lift the rib-cage using a gentle roll of the shoulders to assist. You should find that you've now created space for the movement to continue its way along the spine. If it feels blocked, pause and reassess. If necessary, retrace your route. At this point, you still want to keep your head upright drawing the chin back.
8. Once you feel that your upper back is fully extended, look over your right shoulder and place your hand on your bock or heel. Place the left hand by taking the left arm overhead and circling it back and down. You'll probably sink back in the hips a little as you do this, so press the hips forward again once you have the hands in place.
9. If everything is feeling comfortable, lift through the heart again and gently take the head back.
10. Remain for 3 deep breaths. To come out of pose, strongly engage your core and either lift up leading with your heart or bring the head up with the shoulders. Basically, don't leave the head trying to make its own way home. Slowly move into Table Pose (Goasana) giving the spine time to adjust to the change of direction, then from there sink into Child's Pose.
Notes: In the final pose, the thighs should be vertical as you lengthen out of the pelvis. You can get a handle on this by practising in front of a wall. Press your hips into contact with the wall and keep them there as you move back.
a) Keep hands on lower back for support and head upright, focusing on lengthening the spine, drawing the shoulders back, lifting the chest and extending the hips, rather than placing the hands.
b) Extend backwards and hold on to chair legs for support rather than blocks or heels.
Flatten your feet, so you have a little further to reach!
a) Neck, shoulder or back issues
b) Recent abdominal surgery
Play safe, kids!