If you search “ways to improve backbends” on the internet, you’ll likely find articles offering a variety of ways to use props. These props often provide support within a static expression of the shape in order to help the practitioner approximate the ranges of motion required from the hips, spine, and shoulders. For this reason, these propping strategies usually fall toward the passive side of the spectrum for exploring range of motion.
In this article, part 2 of a 3-part series, we’ll go further into exploring this more passive manner of using props and examine how these strategies can offer an accessible means to assess our mobility, and scale improving it for the target backbend. Since these propping strategies tend to make the pose relatively more passive, we’ll discuss how they specifically improve each of the three seeds of mobility—flexibility, strength, and coordination—through these more passive means.
Then, in our last and final article of this series, we’ll look at how using props more actively, to increase demand on our body, can also improve the three seeds of mobility—flexibility, strength, and coordination—but through relatively more active means. My hope is that in contrasting these approaches (without pitting them against each other or falsely dichotomizing them) we’ll see how passive propping strategies differ from active ones, and how both can work together effectively to improve mobility. For more background on the components of mobility that both passive and active prep addresses, check out part one of this three-part series titled The Three Seeds of Mobility: Going Beyond the Binaries of Improving Range of Motion.
For the purpose of narrowing our scope and providing a clear framework to explore passive and active use of props in this series, we’ll continue to apply these concepts to the backbend, Ustrasana, Camel Pose. You might think of this example of Ustrasana, pictured below, as the “traditional” expression, or the “deepest” expression of the pose. You might also feel it’s not accessible, relevant, or useful to you and you might have no interest in practicing this variation of the pose at all, ever. I applaud your perspective, no matter what it is, and I should say that this example is certainly not the way I define Ustrasana. In fact, I see all poses as a spectrum of possibilities rather than a single point (or variation).
A picture of any variation of a pose—whether propped or unpropped—represents one of many possible points along a spectrum. I choose to view every pose this way because, for me, defining the “the full expression of the pose,” or trying to make my body look like a picture in a book or on Instagram isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is learning how I can adjust the parameters of any given pose—by adding props for support or feedback, changing the body’s joint angles in some way, changing the body’s orientation to gravity, or even adding external load (which we’ll look at more in part 3 of this series)—and by doing so offer my body a novel stimulus and opportunity to adapt toward more flexibility, strength, or coordination. However, for the purpose of being able to specify these benefits within context, it’s important that we have an agreed upon goal so that each strategy has meaning that is rooted in context. This will help us get more specific about how each strategy addresses flexibility, strength, and coordination specifically for our specified goal.
Before we begin, too, let me reiterate a point I made in part 1 of this series which is that the terms passive and active are relative and context-dependent. In referring to the below strategies as more passive, I mean that they decrease the demands placed on the body relative to what the demands would be if we practiced the pose without props, as pictured above. As the result of decreasing demands, these propping strategies change how we are able to work on specific seeds of mobility—flexibility, strength, and coordination. They might also open windows of opportunity for practitioners to address their individual needs that meet them where they are, and progress their abilities gradually.
In offering these opportunities for accessibility and scalability, passive propping strategies can help a pose feel safer and better for a practitioner, but also inspire questions and creativity, and provide a path for improving skill by embodying inquiry rather than performing shapes.
Here are three ways passive propping can enhance a mobility practice, with examples (we’ll see that it’s often the case they do all three at once!):
Passive propping can decrease the range of motion necessary to be in a pose. This makes the pose more accessible by helping the practitioner work more closely within their actual range, as well as learn necessary muscle coordination to control the shape with this lesser range before proceeding to the bigger range the target pose requires.
Passive propping can provide feedback to the body through touch and support. This can give us more information to consider about where to activate more or less from, where we want to feel the pose more or less from in our body, and what body parts need to coordinate together specifically to distribute tension and space optimally.
Passive propping often offloads body weight so we can manage a reduced percentage of load. Similar to decreasing range of motion, this can make the pose more accessible by helping practitioners work more closely within their current level of strength and coordination and build it gradually over time. Additionally, sometimes in offloading body weight, props can also redistribute it to a different group of muscles. In this way, props can offer variation for targeting different muscle groups for strength more or less within a particular pose.
Passive propping strategies can decrease range of motion.
Propping strategies, like the one depicted here, often function to decrease necessary joint angles required for a pose. This can help meet our needs for reduced range in the moment, but it can also provide us a path for progressing our range gradually over time. Here’s how:
The chair raises the ground up to my hands. This makes it so that considerably less shoulder and spinal extension is required than what is in the target pose.
To progress my range of motion in spinal extension, I could gradually lower the height of the prop under my hands.
To progress my range of motion in shoulder extension, I could gradually raise the height of the prop under my hands.
Passive propping strategies can provide feedback.
Props touch our skin and press into our flesh to provide our nervous system with feedback. This external feedback through touch helps us to more accurately perceive our joints’ positions and know what parts of ourselves to stabilize or mobilize more or less. Here’s how:
The wall, as a prop, acts as a target to actively extend my hips into. It’s also a barrier that prevents my pelvis from drifting forward past my knees. In this way, the wall offers feedback that helps me to learn to distribute extension to my hips without letting that cause my low back to extend too much, as well. This is especially useful for Ustrasana.
Even though the chair offers a relatively more passive support to my shoulders, the legs of the chair inform the distance between my feet while offering me feedback in the form of something to press my feet out into to work in order to work more actively in internal hip rotation.
Passive propping strategies offload body weight.
Props often offer full or partial support of some portion of our body within a shape. This support decreases demand on our muscles so that we don’t have to work as hard, which can open windows of opportunity to focus more on the seeds of flexibility and coordination, instead. Additionally, in allowing us to scale how much body weight we need to manage, props can also help us build strength gradually over time. Here’s how:
EXAMPLE 1: chair backbend variation 1 as a re-orientation of Ustrasana
The props offer full support of my body weight, making it so that I can be in this particular arrangement of joint angles longer, feel what’s going on, and learn how to activate muscles to distribute tension and space effectively within them. Specifically, this setup allows me to work on the coordination of distributing extension out of my lower back, where it will more easily go, and into my hips and thoracic spine, instead.
The blue block under my sacrum and tailbone supports my pelvis, as well as the direction of posterior pelvic tilt. In this way the block also offers feedback to help me posteriorly tilt my pelvis and differentiate hip extension from lumbar extension.
The stacked blocks under my rib cage and thoracic spine offer support, but also feedback to help me differentiate thoracic extension from lumbar extension.
The chair simply supports my head at an angle that follows the trajectory of my body. I’m choosing a completely different shoulder position, as well, because in taking my arms overhead, I enhance the feeling of length in my spine.
As a result of offloading body weight and providing feedback, I might feel more of a stretch sensation at the front of my quads and hips, as well as around the front of my chest in this shape. These more positive feelings could replace the negative feelings of pinch or crunch in my lower back, common complaints from students practicing Ustrasana. Instead, these more positive internal feelings of well-distributed tension and space can train my nervous system to perceive these challenging ranges of motion as safe over time.
To make this passive propping strategy more active,
press your feet down into the floor for a more active quad stretch
engage your glutes and work to lift your sacrum away from the block for more active effort in hip extension (and to decrease lumbar extension)
arc your thoracic spine up and over the bricks stacked beneath it for more active effort in thoracic extension
EXAMPLE 2: chair backbend variation 2 as a re-orientation of Ustrasana
The chair seat fully supports the weight of my body, making the shape of Ustrasana in this orientation quite passive.
The placement of the edge of the chair provides feedback by targeting extension of a particularly stiff couple of segments of my thoracic spine. You can adjust the point of contact of the chair to introduce extension passively to segments superior or inferior, depending on where the individual feels it would be beneficial. This can help us to uncover our unique “blindspots” within the thoracic spine where certain segments of our T-spine are more or less reluctant to extend. This can help us better coordinate extension through these stickier bits, and distribute extension more evenly through the whole spine later when we approach Ustrasana.
My hands grab the legs of the chair, rather than my heels, which reduces the range of motion that I’d explore through my spine in Ustrasana.
EXAMPLE 3: bridge as a re-orientation of Ustrasana
The block supports the weight of my pelvis so that I can work more passively in the pose. I can decide how passively I want to work by either letting the block fully support me or adding varying degrees of effort by pressing my feet down to make my pelvis lighter.
Additionally, because the block supports my pelvis, it also supports my spine and shoulders in a position of extension as well. This offloads body weight from these joints. It also decreases the range of motion I explore from these joints relative to Ustrasana as well.
EXAMPLE 4a: Bow Pose with a bolster variation 1 as re-orientation of Ustrasana
Sometimes the prop doesn’t completely offload body weight as resistance, but rather, redistributes it to another group of muscles. This changes the emphasis of which muscles work more or less. In this way, props can add variability in allowing us to build different patterns of strength within the same shape.In this prop arrangement, the bolster tips the lower spine and hip side of the pose to the floor so that the upper spine and shoulder side of the pose work harder to extend (lift up away from the floor). This distributes more work to the muscles that run along my upper spine and upper back, as well as the backs of my shoulders.
In redistributing the work in this way, the pose has become less active for the lower half of my body, while becoming more active for the upper half.
EXAMPLE 4a: Bow Pose with a bolster variation 2 as re-orientation of Ustrasana
In this prop arrangement, the bolster tips the upper spine and shoulder side of the pose to the floor so that the lower spine and hip side of the pose must work harder to extend. This distributes more work to the muscles that run along my lower spine, as well as the backs of my hips.
In redistributing the work in this way, the pose has become less active for the upper half of my body, while becoming more active for the lower half.
Passive propping strategies like these can be wonderful for slowly building the requisite seeds of mobility—flexibility, strength, and coordination—for a backbend like Ustrasana. They do so by decreasing range of motion, providing feedback, and offloading body weight—sometimes all three at once! This makes the pose Ustrasana more accessible in allowing individuals to explore it as a spectrum of possibilities, rather than one target point. It offers scalability so that the work can meet an individual’s needs where they are.
These prop arrangements add variability to the practice of Ustrasana in being able to emphasize and de-emphasize different subcomponents of mobility, as well as change what muscles work more or less, or what joint angles are emphasized or de-emphasized. All of these strategies might offer inroads toward a practice of Ustrasana that feels safer, more relevant, and maybe even better for our body in the short term, as well as in the long term.