Yoga back bends: feels yummy on the autonomic nervous system

bend13I’ve been using yoga as a main source of rehabilitation and recovery since I was bedridden. I began doing yoga while still in bed. Now it continues to be a primary source of continued healing. Lately I’ve been doing backbends and while all the yoga I do feels like it profoundly helps my nervous system, these bends have really been making me think about my autonomic nervous system and how it seems to be healing it. Tending to the autonomic nervous system seems like the most important thing I’m doing in all of my recovery practices. And indeed all of my recovery practices aid in this most important endeavor.

I wrote the below couple of paragraphs and shared it with two friends:

I’m doing lots of back bends…with the yoga ball and sometimes a bolster but also with no props and now I just got two yoga blocks in the mail I’m experimenting with. Seems really critically important to stretch the spine and open the chest etc…feel it really intensely in my nervous system…what is interesting is how far I’ve come…been working on this opening for years (since I was bedridden). At first I could barely stand opening my chest for a few seconds with the bolster in a relatively gentle bend (like in the photos below)

It’s rather fascinating how now I do really radical bends and how important they feel. I’m convinced this is critical for healing the nervous system but I’m not sure what it’s doing…I’ve got other routines that feel equally critical…like legs against the wall and then variations of legs up in the air from there including shoulder stands and ploughs. All my yoga feels critical but the ones I just talked about seem über critical…and just recently the bends are what I’m most fascinated with. My body’s movement needs change as I heal and grow. This is the phase I’m in now. What do you think?

Backbend slideshow. To get ideas about some variations on the theme. Start easy and gently. Never do more than is completely comfortable!

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I shared the above comments with a couple of friends. One is a yoga instructor and the other has a diplomate of oriental medicine. These were their responses when I asked what the bends were doing to my autonomic nervous system:

I’ve also been doing a lot (well, relatively speaking) of backbends recently and love them. The one I like the best is the half-moon pose (doing a half-backbend with hands on lower back from a standing position). Some things I’ve discovered:

1) Backbends reverse the inevitable hyper-flexion of the spine from too much sitting and computer use. They restore the natural positioning of the pelvis and the lordotic curve in the lumbar spine. In this, they can be extremely helpful in correcting SI (sacroiliac) joint dysfunction leading to low back pain. In fact, my current fave “correction” for low back is gently pressing the hips forward (as if you were about to go into a backbend) until they sort of “snap” into place. Presto!—pain gone.

2) Backbends and side bends “aerate” the spine, opening up the spaces between the vertebrae and allowing the spinal nerves space to “breathe.” They also move lymph and cerebrospinal fluid via compression, helping to hydrate the spine, the spinal nerves, and tissues around the spine, and thus relaxing the ANS. (Thanks to Roger Jahnke for this.)

3) Backbends stretch the psoas, which is known in qigong as “the seat of the soul” and is hugely important for trauma, since a lot of trauma gets stored in the psoas, and is reinforced by the perpetual crouch (forward flexion of the spine, head forward, neck flexed, shoulders collapsed, hips flexed, and knees drawn up—essentially the fetal position) we go into when scared or anxious, or with too much sitting. One set of trauma-releasing exercises (David Berceli’s) is all about releasing tension in the psoas. — Nicole Freed Dipl.O.M.


Especially after so many years of being sedentary backbends really wake things up and are used in many systems to shift depressive mood and states. Yes, the autonomic nervous system is involved in almost any asana and vagal stimulation is happening, but i also think there’s a neuroendocrine effect with most asanas. In terms of backbends, some of what is happening is a systematic and repeated squeezing of the adrenals, wringing out excessive cortisol and epinephrine for processing. Feeling better sometimes means just having less cortisol and less HPA axis stimulation. Of course there’s also the increased oxygen and changing the shape of the breathing cavity. Lots of wonderful things happening! — Kristine Kaoverii Weber

Wowee!! My body KNOWS…it gravitated to this all on it’s own. Our bodies are wondrous healing machines. 

I strongly encourage you to learn to listen to yours! It’s a wonderful adventure.

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