Urdhva Dhanurasana, aka Upward Bow – don’t call it Wheel, that’s a different pose ;). One of the ultimate yoga stretches for the front of the body, Urdhva Dhanurasana challenges us to maintain our strength though the core as we radiate through our upper chest and heart and stretch our hip flexors and shoulders. Any restriction in the shoulders or hips will immediately translate into a crunched lower back, so Upward Bow requires a great deal of warming up and opening in order to be happily explored.
Risk factors: The low back. This is priority number one. In order to keep our low back long and strong, we much engage the rectus abdominus and create containment through the front of our body. Opening the shoulders and hip flexors will help us to find an even arch through the spine and take pressure off the lower back to do all the bending.
What to warm up:
The shoulders in flexion (reaching forward and up). Whenever we have the arms over our head, our upper arms must in in external rotation. This means that poses like adho mukha svanasana (down dog), urdhva hastasana (arms over the head in tadasana – I love this when squeezing a block between the wrists, arms straight, front ribs in), and handstand (urdhva hastasana upside down) will be great warm ups for the shoulders. You should be able to straighten the arms above the head without bending the elbows or bowing the spine. If this isn’t possible yet, then keep working on the shoulders and wait before trying Upward Bow. With time, it will come.
The hip flexors (front of the thighs). Low lunge, high lunge, and Virabhadrasana I are great poses for opening the front of the thighs. We are particularly interested in the psoas rather than the quads, as the knees in Urdhva Dhanurasana aren’t really that bent.
The thoracic (upper back). Work to open the front of the heart by broadening the collarbones, lifting the sternum, and drawing the shoulders deeply into the body. Can you work to isolate the drawing in of the upper back while you keep your lower back long? It’s a little bit of a conundrum, but this is exactly the paradoxical work that backbends require. Poses such as sphinx, bhujanghasana (baby cobra), urdhva mukha svanasana (up dog), and salabhasana (locust) can refine this work. Twists such as parivrtta parsvakonasana and parivrtta trikonasana are excellent at teaching the body to open the upper spine while engaging the abdominals and lengthening.
The core. To maintain a long lower back, we must use strength through the front of the body to contain the area between the front hip points (the ASIS) and the lower ribcage. Poses such as plank, forearm plank, and navasana (as well as other non-yoga varieties that might be in your repertoire) can bring awareness to this area. Doing a mild camel with your frontal hip points stuck to the wall and focusing on lifting up an out of the hips can be an effective way to bring attention to the work of the abdominals.
The inner thighs. The adductors link to the core. Also, as we press into backbends, the tendency is to grip the buttocks, which can cause external rotation in the thighs and squash the sacrum. By engaging the inner thighs and rolling them slightly to the back body, we widen the sacrum, create length through the back and more room to reach the sitbones away from the back. The adductors can be accessed in almost every pose, but are particularly obvious in neutral lunges when we can “scissor” the inner thighs towards each other. Putting a block between the upper thighs or the inner feet immediately creates and adductor-engaged imprint in the body.
Props: Use a strap shoulder-width above the elbows to prevent flailing out in the arms and loss of external rotation. Strap the upper thighs at hip distance apart to keep the legs parallel the hips (and inner thighs down, and sacrum wide). A block between the upper thighs cues the inner thighs to engage and roll to the floor. A block between the feet or a strap around the big toes helps to keep the feet parallel and tracking (keeping the thighs neutral rather than externally rotating). Blocks tilted at the wall can take the pressure out of the wrists by decreasing the angle at which they need to bear weight.
Energetics: Urdhva Dhanurasana is one of the great heart openers. But we cannot move to opening unless there we have strength through the core of the body. We need a solid foundation through the legs, pelvis and lower core (energetically we need stability in chakras 1-3) in order to radiate and expand through the upper chest (chakra 4, the heart chakra). In a recent workshop, Anodea Judith invited us to open our hearts while staying in our core. In relationships – the purview of chakra 4 – we often find ourselves either hardening and retreating or becoming too malleable and floppy. We are either defensive, or we let too much in. Urdhva Dhanurasana invites into the great balance; the more strength and grounding that we can find in our center, the more open and receptive that we can safely become.
Backbending thoughts from Aadil Palkivala:
Physically speaking, backbends move the spine into the body, creating strength in the back of the body and length through the groins, abdominal cavity, rib cage, throat, and frontal shoulders. Backbends charge the kidneys by drawing them into the body, rejuvenating the adrenals and drawing the life force given by the kidneys back into the body. Backbends generally open up three major areas of the body – the pelvis, heart and throat. Therefore, they can open the hips, free the chest from congestion, and bring back a healthy curve to the neck. Most of our daily habits (sitting, driving, working at a desk) cause a collapse in the front of our bodies and push the spine backwards. This is why you will often feel bony lumps on the spine of older people. Backbends bring healthy alignment and mobility back into the spine, moving the vertebrae forwards.
Psychologically speaking, backbends move us toward our future and away from our past, since the back of the body represents the past and the front of our body represents our future. Backbends quieten the hyper-analytical activity of the front brain, and because of the extension produced, trigger a feeling of openness in the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain). In contrast, when we are in a state of fear or anger, we curl up and go into a position of flexion (protection). Thus, psychologically speaking, backbends move us from fear to power.
Energetically speaking, backbends move the spine toward the Pillar of Light in the body. They open up congested and stagnant pelvic energy. This allows the energy to move upward in an expression of aspiration for growth, where it can be transformed by the wisdom of the Heart Chakra. Backbends open up the Heart Chakra, expanding the feeling of love and joy. They also open the throat, allowing the Heart Chakra to express words of beauty and love. This opening also allows the mental energy to move more easily down to the Heart Chakra.
However, a caveat: All the above happens in backbends only if there is the intention for this to happen as you practice. Otherwise you will simply become more flexible!