The Elegant Wheel
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow, also known as “Wheel”) is one of the most delicious and expansive of yoga asana, inviting a full opening of the “Eastern,” or front, side of the body. As in all yoga asana, the stability (sthira) of the back body is essential for supporting the full expansion and sweetness (sukha) of the front body. Also, Urdhva Dhanurasana calls for a profound opening in the hips and shoulders in order to access the fullest expression of the spine. Since the body has to put all these parts together effectively, accessing the full expression of this pose can sometimes be elusive.
However, with some preparation and variation, the benefits of this pose can be readily be made available to a wide range of students.
Finding the full range of motion in the lower body for Urdhva Dhanurasana is more than a matter of spinal flexibility. For most of us, we can find about 45 degrees of mobility through the spine, and an additional 15 degrees of extension between the hips and the thighs. What this means is that in order to access the full “bow-ness” of Upward Bow, we must be conscious to open the hips as well as the back.
The muscles to target here are the psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris (one of the quads). By effectively opening these muscles, over time the full hip extension of Urdhva Dhanurasana becomes accessible. While opening the quads can be targeted through thigh stretches (think low lunge, bending the back knee, and drawing the heel towards the buttock), the ilio-psoas needs to be stretched by a differential between the angle of the back thigh and the pelvis. Crescent and Upright Low lunge are great candidates. When stretching the psoas, the back leg will often turn out in a clever attempt to avoid the stretch. Focus on softening the upper inner thigh of the back leg towards the back plane of the body until the thigh is neutral in the socket. Once space and alignment is created, the anchoring of the tailbone down will create the posterior action needed to begin stretching this important muscle.
Because the psoas attaches all the way up the lumbar spine towards T12, conscious alignment of the hips is one half of the equation. Note that in the stretch, the lumbar and thoracic spine will want to pull forward in space. Instead, consciously draw the lower belly and sides of the waist back and up (almost like scooping your belly with an ice cream scoop). This lifting and scooping action will draw the superior fibers of the psoas away from its insertion on the back thigh. Like ice cream: delicious.
Urdhva Dhanurasana requires a lot of openness through the shoulders. Invariable, this is why some of our sturdier male students remain landlocked on the ground. The arms need the facility to flex fully at the shoulder joint. External rotation of the upper arm is preferred to help anchor the scapulae firmly on the back. Prepare the body for this position by focusing on poses that get the arms above the head: crescent, chair. One of my favorite poses is to do Chair (utkasana) with a block firmly positioned between the hands. Work on pressing your hands into the block as you externally rotate the upper arms, straighten the arms, and then lift them overhead. Once you’ve worked in these positions, move the body in weight-bearing positions to open the shoulders in such asana as dolphin and handstand.
Naturally, a backbend ain’t a backbend without the extension of the thoracic spine. Start small and target the upper back through poses such as cobra and sphinx. Once the upper back has been educated, then you can move to fully spine extensions such as full cobra and updog. When working in spinal extension, it is important to maintain the stability of the lower back in order to avoid over-compressing in the lumbar and lower thoracic. The lower back is the backbendiest place of the spine, and the juncture between the lumbar and thoracic is particularly mobile. While we do use this mobility when we backbend, we don’t want to overly capitalize on it and neglect the opening that needs to occur in the upper spine. Create length and stability by maintaining a broadness in the mid and lower back and focus your backbending efforts higher up. Use the external rotation of the upper arms to facilitate a greater sense of drawing the scapulae into the back. This will help with your thoracic extension. (Try it: do a mini standing backbend with your arms externally rotated, then internally rotated – which is easier?)
The buttocks in backbending can become overly zealous. My teacher Catherine Munro called this phenomenon the “pumpkin.” While the glutes work, we want to be careful that they don’t overly engage. The secondary action of the glutes is to externally rotate the thigh, which can lead to compression through the lower back and inability to lengthen the tailbone. Use the muscular midline (adductors, internal rotators) to keep the legs neutral even when the glutes engage.
You can teach proper engagement in your backbends, but also in poses such as crescent or 3-legged dog, where the back leg needs to find a slight internal rotation to bring it back to neutral.
Getting up there- Two hand positions
After you warm up your students thoroughly and appropriately, start your students in bridge and confirm the neutral placement of the feet. The feet – as a distal reflection of the thighs – will attempt to turn out when the glutes engage. Use midline to keep the legs (and feet) parallel. As your students lift into bridge, confirm the action of the legs and pelvis in this non-weight bearing position.
From here, they place their hands in position #1: by the ears and close. The proximity of the hands to the head will give them more muscular access to lifting up.
Once they come onto their heads, widen the hands into hand position #2, which creates a little more space into the shoulder girdle. While they will have less power to press up, most students appreciate the extra space. They can also turn their hands out slightly to create even more room.
Now it is time to affirm the lift into the thoracic spine and appropriate action of the shoulders – before they become weight-bearing through their arms. Have your students roll towards their hairline to draw their chest forward through their arms as they root the upper arms bones back into their sockets (towards their hips). This will anchor the scapulae on the back. From here, they can then press into the hands and feet evenly (watch the feet don’t move – continue to hug the midline) to come up.
There are two variations of Urdhva Dhanurasana. In variation 1, the student works to create an even bow through the whole body, with the pelvis and ribs level. While this is easier on the shoulders, it’s harder on the wrists as they are at a very acute angle. In version 2, the student begins to bring their shoulders forward over their wrists (see pic above). Easier on the wrists, but asking for lots of space in the shoulders. Eventually, you can take version 2, then walk the feet in as is comfortable to tighten the bowstring. Students should maintain the capacity to feel grounded in the feet (good for standing up eventually from this pose) as well as rooted in the hands (great for shoulder opening). Here’s a tip from Asthanga teacher Chris Richardson: To keep the lower back long, move everything from the navel through the thighs towards the feet, while the navel through the back spine reaches forward into the hands. Move both parts of the body away from each other to create spaciousness in the center.
If you have students who are limited through their shoulders, you can have them hold your ankles. They should place the webbing of their hands into the crease where your leg and foot meet and hold there, rather than wrapping their hands around your lower leg. (Make sure to keep your feet on the wide side.) Otherwise their hands will slide down to your feet anyway, giving you a you an unwelcome skin massage.
One step at a time
Many times students will forget about the foundation in the excitement of getting up and turn their feet and leg out every which way in an effort to “do the full pose.” While this may be initially exciting, it is far better to proceed with patience so that the whole body can be integrated in the pose – from the toes to the fingers. Otherwise, cranky low backs will ensue rather than the adrenal stimulating, expansive awakening that Urdhva Dhanuarasana provides.
The”full expression” of Urdhva Dhanurasana allows you to leverage the action of the arms to open the upper back and chest, your students in bridge are still experiencing the delights of spinal extension. Over time and patient practice, the body will become more receptive and open to this luxurious expression. Warm up intelligently, manage your foundation and actions, and allow the pose to unfold from there.