I’m gonna cut to the chase here. The thoracic spine can’t bend backwards. At all. This means the common cue in backbends that we should ‘backbend from the thoracic spine’ conveys more a sense of direction for this region of the spine, rather than a target position. Ultimately, in a backbend, our whole spine extends. The question is, how much in what region, and for who?
Due to the T-spine’s convex shape from the rear (hill rather than valley), for most, it can only reverse out of its hill-like shape into a plateau. It flat-bends. Meanwhile, the lumbar and cervical spine – concave from the rear – are quite capable of deepening their valleys to bend the body backwards. This starts to become clearer when we look closely at a backbend like urdvha dhanurasana (above.) At first, the eye is drawn to the rounder-shaped side of the rib cage (the front chest region) which fools the eye into believing the curve of the chest is produced by a reversed curve of the T-spine. But look again at the T-spine from the back side of the body. For the average person, the T-spine flat-bends more than it back-bends.
In the video below, the pose I’m demoing is an unconventional approach to cobra. It’s one that we explore in the back-bending masterclass of the Yoga Tune Up®️ Training. This YTU variation is excellent for targeting the muscles that impact thoracic posture and strength because it helps the practitioner uncouple scapular retraction (squeezing the shoulder blades together or ‘broadening across the collarbones) from thoracic extension. Over-reliance on your scapular retractors may detract from fully working your thoracic extensors. They create the illusion of thoracic extension, but don’t actually act on the joints of the T-spine to extend them at all.
To highlight strengthening your thoracic extensors, instead, consider protracting the scapulae (slide them apart like patio doors) to inhibit their tendency to retract (slam shut) as the thoracic spine extends. In other words, inhibit your retractors so the extensors get their chance in the spotlight. How much thoracic extension can you find without the mask of scapular retraction? Notice if you find yourself working different muscles in baby cobra or salabasana.
2 TIPS: Actively work a posterior pelvic tilt if you find yourself moving mostly from your lumbar. Tuck the toes under and dig your heels into a wall for greater leverage.)Progress this work by lengthening the levers and taking the arms overhead!