I used to hate backbends. They. Just. Hurt. And they felt impossibly difficult. After a lot of practice and education, we became great friends. Here are a few tips to help you love them now like I do. Then check out this 25-minute practice to try it yourself.
1. Keep your lower spine stable.
There is a misconception about backbends, propagated even by the name itself, that the hinge in these types of poses should come from the lower back. It's not true! Don't believe some of the very fancy looking yoga photos out there because backbends are all about stabilizing your lower spine (lumbar), while you hinge from your upper back (thorasic). Hold your core tight to keep your pelvis stable and let the opening come from the upper back. Imagine a band stretched across the lower tips of your shoulder blades and hinge from there, even if it's a small bend.
2. Yes, use your lower spine muscles.
And your whole lower body for that matter. After you connect to your core for stability of the lumbar spine, you'll find that hinging through the upper back will make your lower back feel tight. That's ok! That means the muscles around the lower back are working and that's what we need. Now, if you feel compression (meaning the vertebrae are pressing against each other, ouch) then that's not ok. You'll want to back off and reengage the core muscles to stabilize your pelvis. To help you do that, energetically extend your legs back and hug them towards the midline of the body like you're squeezing a grapefruit between your thighs and reaching long through your toes. Even engaging your "glamstrings" (where the gluts and hamstrings meet at the bottom of your bottom) will help.
3. Let them happen.
Even the tiniest of backbends can have a transformative effect on your mood and energy level. So don't force it. Let go of trying too hard or coercing your body into looking like the bendy girl next to you. Focus instead on the sensations around the front of the chest. Relax your jaw, maybe even separate your teeth and let yourself smile a bit as you extend the back of the head up and back finding more space in the throat. It'll feel like you're flying. Sigh.