Backbends are not just for contortionists or gymnasts. Ancient yogis noticed that bending backwards keeps the body in a healthy shape well into the old age. Over time, a pool of backbends of various levels of difficulty were developed, from which everyone, young and old, could pick and choose according to their need and capability. It is a very good idea to add a backbend of your choice to your yoga practice.
Why bend backwards?
First, backbends are a great antidote to bad posture. As we grow older, the body tends to stoop, form a hump on the back and hunch at the shoulders. And then suddenly the person is an inch shorter than she or he used to be. Backbends help to straighten the body and keep its height.
Second, compressed spine causes stress to the nerves attached to the spine, which can be very, very painful. A stiff neck and misaligned spine (from sitting at a computer for hours and hours) contribute greatly to headaches, sleeping problems and stress. This is a self-paved road to hell. Stretching the spine in the opposite direction regularly helps to keep it healthy, erect and strong. A stronger and suppler back leads to an agile life free of pain.
Third, backbends are energising, as opposed to forward bends, which are calming. A stream of vital energy runs inside the spinal cord that, if not stimulated, stagnates. Bending the body backward gives a great big boost of energy. Observe your increased energy level the next time you do a backbend.
Fourth, backbends also open the heart space (chakra) energetically. This is important, because an open heart will connect you with your true self and help get rid of the ego and its juvenile and capricious demands. A tall, but not an impossible order in this mad world.
How to do Camel
I am demonstrating Camel (Ustrasana) above. Stay in the pose for 5 deep breaths. It is a difficult asana to breathe in, but do what you can. Only take your head back if the neck allows it. You can tuck the toes under if the heels feel too far away.
Although not comfortable, remember to push the hips forward. When you come out of the pose, use your stomach muscles if you want to have or maintain a flat stomach. Then rest in Child's. Repeat the exercise once more.
I recommend doing backbends during the first half of the day and towards the end of a yoga class when the body is warmed up.