Back-bending postures can trigger strong emotions – for some people, the experience of lifting into a full wheel is one of pure, unadulterated freedom and joy. For others, the act of exposing our heart and organs brings on vulnerability, trepidation and fear. Whichever camp you fall into, these tips will support you to rise into Urdhva dhanurasana with confidence and comfort.
Of all the categories of yoga asanas, back bends require the most preparation. Even the bendiest, stretchiest people I know don’t roll out of bed in the morning and pop straight up into Urdhva dhanuasana (Upward facing bow, or wheel pose).
A healthy, integrated wheel pose involves the entire body, and before moving into this posture or other challenging backbends, we need to be warm. We need to mobilise our spine, and also to stretch our quadriceps, hip flexors, side bodies and shoulders.
As well as stretching and creating space and mobility, we need to add support. The lower back, neck and shoulders are all vulnerable areas. They have great mobility, but not so much stability, which means they need to be protected by active muscular engagement and mindful movement. So, once we’ve done a thorough job of preparing our bodies and we’re ready to rise into Urdhva dhanurasana, we need to stay aware, present, and connected to our body as we move into the asana, as we hold it, and as we release from it.
#1 Practice some more gentle backbends first
Prior to moving into Urdhva dhanurasana, practice some more gentle backbends such as Salabhasana (Cobra pose) and Setu bandha sarvangasana (Bridge pose). Stretch your shoulders, hip flexors and quads. Also incorporate at least one twist and lateral stretch into your warm up.
#2 Set your foundations
When preparing to lift into Urdhva dhanurasana, start with your feet. Place your feet hip width apart for stability. Ideally, the outer edges of the feet are parallel.Think of your feet as each having three corners – the heel, the base of the big toe, and the base of the pinky toe – and press firmly into each corner. The base of the big toe is where we’re most likely to lose our connection with the floor when we lift, so be particularly mindful of pressing down here.
#3 You can lift in stages
Place your hands beside your ears, shoulder width apart, and spread your fingers wide. Before you begin to lift, squeeze your elbows in towards each other so that your arms are parallel. You can lift in stages – on one exhalation, lift up to the crown of your head. Pause, take a moment to ensure your arms are still parallel to each other, then on another exhalation press your hands into the mat, extend your arms and lift your head. Alternatively, use an exhalation to rise into the pose.
#4 Create a slight internal rotation to your thighs
This means the inner thighs subtly move down towards the floor, while the outer thighs spiral up away from the floor. Placing a block between the thighs will really help you to feel this internal rotation if you’re not sure whether you’ve got it. Ensuring the big toe mounds stay grounded will also help.
#5 Very gently scoop the tip of the tailbone under
This will ensure you’re not over-using (or even abusing) the mobility in your lower back.
#6 Don’t clench your glutes
Engage the lower fibres of your glutes, but don’t clench the upper portion. This might be challenging initially – practice it standing in Tadasana (Mountain pose) before you practice Urdhva dhanurasana.
#7 Stay mindful
Note what you’re feeling in the pose. Look for an even sensation through your back. They’re shouldn’t be any pinching or compression in the lower back. If you do feel discomfort in your lower back (either while you’re in the pose or when you’ve come back down) return to practicing Setu bandha sarvangasana, and spend some time practicing the three points above – a slight internal rotation to the thighs, gentle scooping of the point of the tailbone, and softening a little around the top of the glutes. When you’re confident you’ve mastered these actions, try Urdhva dhanurasana again.
#8 Switch your hamstrings on
Rather than pushing the mat away from you with your feet, press your feet down and very lightly pull your feet towards your hands – as if your feet are glued to the mat and you’re trying to drag the mat.
#9 Broaden your upper back
Broaden your upper back, in order to create space between your shoulder blades. You want your armpits to face the same direction as you’re your nose, not to open out to the sides.
#10 Don’t collapse out of the pose!
Tuck your chin, squeeze your elbows towards each other, lower your shoulders down near your fingertips and slowly roll your spine to the floor. Take a few breaths in a neutral position before moving on.
Written by Marita Dortins
Founder and Senior Teacher at The Yoga Well, Sydney
Senior teacher on Byron Yoga Centre’s teacher training courses