The Myths of Backbend (1) Power up your Baby Toes

Aug 19th, 2017

Backbends are always a great challenge for “men of steel”. Some practitioners give up after trying for years or decades to open their backs; others find backbends harmful to their lower back, shoulders, neck etc. We are not training to be contortionists; inevitably, our spines are less bendy. However, is flexibility the only criterion for the backbends? Isn’t strength or power not required?

The Causes

Backbend, in Indian term, is eastern stretch. As a tradition, Indians face the sun to practise yoga in the morning. So the front of the body is the eastern side while the back represents the western side. In a backbend, the eastern part of the body has to be stretched and the western part of the body has to be contracted.

One major obstacle of backbend is the low back jam. But why do our bodies only bend with our low back but not other parts which we put much effort to open? Let’s look at the tendency we perform backbend at different levels of difficulties.

Beginner Backbends

The three postures are (1) preparation for camel pose; (2) cobra and (3) bridge, all backbend postures at the beginner level. You may find the lower back area (L4, L5 or S1) jammed in both camel and cobra; and perhaps similar experience in bridge. This happens when the vertebral column is not spacious enough, putting too much compression in between the vertebras in the lower back, thereby resulting in the bones crashing together.

Look at the feet for the camel preparation and cobra. The top of the toes, feet and ankles are not grounded firmly on the floor. This is particularly so on the outer edge of the feet. The gluteus maximus and external hip rotator are squeezed towards the centre. This contracts the buttocks and tightens the sacrum, resulting in shortening of the lumbar spine and causing the jam. This is a warning signal to discontinue or injuries will occur, sooner or later.


When the hamstrings are rolled out to the sides, the hip is widened, the jam is immediately released. She now has the ease to either continue to bend further or stay in her maximum range.

The Solutions

Here are some techniques to power up our toes and ankles to make our backbend journey safe and happy.

The Toes

Our big toes connect the inner hip while the baby toes connect the outer hip. Hence when the baby toes are lazy and lift away from the floor, the hip is closed. When they are spread and grounded on the floor, the outer edge of the leg will engage and the outer hip opens.

How easy can we put this wisdom into our practice?

For decades, we wear shoes, pointy-toe shoes especially, inviting all our toes to squeeze towards the centre – exactly the opposite of what we are looking for. The tips of the toes are connecting to the feet as well as the legs and the hip, expanding further to the spine and the whole body. Hence it is not possible for us to connect our legs without awakening our toes and ankles.

Exercises for the Toes

(1) Toe Spreaders – Wear toe spreaders for one or two hours a day. If you cannot afford time during the day, try them at night as long as this does not affect your sleep. Vibram FiveFingers are useful too.

(2) Sitting Postures – Try some sitting postures with the toe spreaders. Relax the big toes. Most people spread their toes purely through the effort of their big toes. Do the opposite. Relax the big toes and wake up the baby toes. This helps you engage the legs and relax the hips.

The Ankles

The next part of the eastern side we need to extend is our ankles. In camel or cobra (or upward facing dog) poses, we position our feet with pointed toes while stretching the ankles long, pressing them as close as possible towards the floor. Hence we need to take several steps to open up our ankles. The

Exercises for the Ankles

(1) Seiza (Proper Sitting in Japan) – Bend the knees and sit on the heels. To sit in Japanese style, use the thumbs to press the outer edges of the feet towards the side. If it is too intensive, place some towels under the ankles and on the heels. Make sure the sacrum is long and perpendicular to the floor. Sitting on a yoga block helps. Sit for at least 5 minutes a day or with several intervals until the pain is over. Then proceed to the next level. Skip this when you stop experiencing unease.

(2) Either squat down or sit on the ankles. Then lift up your left knee and lay it on top of one or two yoga blocks. Allow the stretch to happen in your left ankle. You may start with one block. After 3 minutes, increase the stretch to two blocks; and then more. Repeat on the other side.

(3) Stand or sit on a chair and press the inner and outer edges or point toes or any part of your foot against the floor so as to develop flexibility of your ankles.

(4) Go to the wall, put the left heel as close as possible to the wall then tuck the left toes against the wall. Lift up the right heel and shift the body forward. Feel you want to pull your toes towards your calf. Repeat the second side.

(5) Lie down on the floor, turn the feet outward and inward. Ask a partner to step on the inner and outer edges of your feet (use the hands in the beginning if the stretch is too intense). Try to stand and walk a few steps afterwards to feel the difference. Take a quiet moment to let your body feel the impact.

(6) After these exercises, try the camel preparation again. Press the soles either with your own hands or get a partner to press on the soles. Then just by yourself, spread the toes and ground the tip of all toes, feet and ankles on the floor while softening the hip.

Low Cobra with a Different Focus

1. Hold either seal (feet wide) or low cobra (feet parallel) with legs lengthened, top of feet and toes grounded and all toes spread.
2. Hold and breathe along the spine.
3. Either put the elbows on the floor or gradually lift them off the floor but keep bending.
4. Focus on connecting the toes and ankle to release the tension of the low back. Never tighten the hip; otherwise just back off.
5. Press back to child’s pose.

It is more ideal to repeat several sets every day for a duration to incorporate some connection than to move quickly in sun salutations without such awareness.

More tips to strengthen your base will be shared in later issues. Be patient.

Asana practice is never about any fancy poses but the joy and peace as you gradually flow through them. There are ways but no short cuts, however. Review the foundation when you have doubt. Enjoy your journey!

Asana Journal

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