Urdhva Dhanurasana – Wheel
The full backbend – upward bow posture – or commonly called ‘the wheel’, is a classic Yoga posture and quite complex. To practice it well requires a lot of ‘opening’ as well as strength in several parts of the body. Although for most a strenuous posture, this backbend reaps a lot of amazing benefits.
Design the foundation skillfully
As in all asanas or postures, a solid and correctly aligned foundation is important. There are different ways to come into this posture. We will look at a two-stage approach to entering into it. Like this we will be able to dissect the different requirements needed to practice it.
Lie on your back with the feet hip-width apart, and the ankles aligned so they’re below your knees. In the first stage we only lift the hips to establish the best possible backbend, and to engage the legs. Some practitioners find it helpful to tuck the tailbone under before lifting the spine off the floor, to create more space in the lower back.
In stage two we focus more on the upper body. For the full backbend our aim is to create space between the shoulder blades, and ultimately to keep the ‘back of the heart’ open, meanwhile we experience a strong stretch/opening in the front of the chest. We would like to broaden the shoulder blades and ‘depress’ them i.e. move them away from the ears.
To come into the posture starting from stage one (hips up only), stretch your arms straight up towards the ceiling and lift the shoulder blades off the floor. Then place your hands under the shoulders with the fingers pointing straight towards the feet. Be aware that due to restrictions in the shoulder joints, elbows or/and wrists, the fingers tend to point too far inward. If you move them with the intention of pointing them outward, they will most likely end up in just the right position, pointing straight at your feet. Now comes the moment of truth: – you are now ready to push into the posture. Hold your bandhas, look at the tip of your nose, push the elbows toward each other and with a deep inhalation lift yourself up.
Being in the posture
Let the feet point straight ahead, with the toes pointing slightly inward. Keep the knees in line with ankles and hips by squeezing the thighs toward each other, thus broadening the back. The buttocks should not be completely soft neither ‘rock hard’, engage them moderately, to avoid compression in the lower back.
Aim to straighten the arms the best you can, rotating the upper arms inward to keep the shoulder blades broad and press down through thumbs and index fingers. Let the head hang back and down, looking at the tip of the nose – ‘nasagrai’.
Breathing calmly into the ‘four corners’ of the rib cage, will help you recognize if you are able to sustain the holding of your bandhas in the process of coming up. It will also teach you how to get the best opening in the chest and bend in your back. Focusing on the breath will always internalize the practice, and reveal some of the intricacies of your personal practice to you.
Restrictions and Requirements
When we start out learning this posture, most of us will find it difficult to lift ourselves off the floor. Obviously our back needs to bend in all areas of the spine. Because we tend to bend easier from the naturally more mobile lower back, we wish to open the thoracic spine around the height of the chest, too.
To begin with, the lower back needs to be strong and flexible. If you have short hip flexor muscles, you will feel stiff in this bend, because the stretch in the groin area will be restricted. This indicates that we have to be not only strong in our backs to perform this asana, but we also have to be stretched and open in the front of the body.
This applies to our chest as well. We wish to open the thoracic spine for it to stretch in the front and be strong in the back. Picture drawing a line from your clavicles straight down past the nipples, towards either side of the navel; this front part of the trunk needs to stretch. If when standing our posture is not yet fully upright, and we have a ‘sunken’ chest, this stretch will be a challenge.
The shoulders need to be able to ‘flex’ fully, which is a movement where when standing, we would lift our arms forward and straight upwards. But for the backbend we need to move the arms even further back than this, to beyond our head. This is the extent of the shoulder stretch necessary for a good backbend. If this movement of the shoulders is restricted, the lifting off the floor into the backbend will be very challenging, as we not only have to lift our body weight up, but we have to push through the stiffness of our shoulders as well.
How to work and stretch different body parts in this asana
Picture yourself practicing Urdhva Dhanurasana with your head pointing towards the wall behind you, and the feet pointing away from the wall.
To increase the stretch in your shoulders when in the posture, move your chest/head closer to the wall by pressing the feet as if away from you. This can be done more effectively when lifting onto the toes with the heels off the floor. Another option is to place the hands on blocks placed against the wall. Or I often place the heels of my palms in the groove where the skirting board meets the wall. Like this I press my hands nearly vertically into the wall. Through the gained height, the bend in the back becomes longer, thus more comfortable and one is much more able to open the chest and shoulders. It is so much more gentle on the wrists, too!
To strengthen your legs – in particular your thigh muscles – the quadriceps: – Using the same starting position as above (wall behind your head) move your chest further away from the wall thus bringing more weight onto the heels. You can also lift your middle three toes off the floor, which will further increase the load on the heels and causes the quadriceps to work even more intensely. The tighter the backbend i.e. hands and feet closer together, the more your quadriceps will have to fire up.
There are so many…. strengthening the legs, back and upper body; stretching the front of the body, as in the hip flexors, abdomen, chest, shoulders, as well as arms and wrists; a wonderful antidote to all the time we spend ‘crunched’ forward in daily life. This posture raises the heartbeat considerably, increasing your stamina and improving your cardio vascular health in general.
Urdhva Dhanurasana is dynamic and energizing, stretching the front of the body increases the flow of blood to the digestive tract and enhances the efficiency of the stomach, liver, and intestines, while contracting the back body stimulates the kidneys and adrenals. It greatly benefits women’s sexual organs, also respiratory difficulties, and it opens the heart. It can also either make you laugh or cry.
Urdhva Dhanurasana is one of the postures you might have to convince yourself to push into, as it is strenuous. But it feels wonderful once you have done it! On days when I am struggling to find the motivation for practicing it, I tell myself that it will be over in just about 3 x 5 breaths, which will take no time at all. Once I have completed this, I find it much easier to convince myself to do the optional three more… once it’s done you feel so very energized and good about yourself, and it leaves you very satisfied and uplifted indeed!