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Yoga Pose Primer: 6 Steps to a Beautiful and Safe Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Upward Bow Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), which is often referred to as Full Wheel or simply a backbend, is an essential asana for spinal extension, opening and lengthening the spine and deeply stretching the shoulders and chest.
However, most students have a love/hate relationship with the quintessential backbend. Urdhva Dhanurasana requires open quads and hip flexors along with fairly flexible thoracic spine and flexible shoulder joints, as well as significant arm, shoulder and leg strength to be able to perform without undue tension in the low back. The key is to focus on creating an even sensation through the body—using the legs and arms equally to create length in the spine and keep an even arch through the back.
In order to attempt Full Wheel Pose safely, the body has to be warm and open, stretching everything from the hips and thighs to arms and chest in preparation for the peak pose. And it’s always a good idea to do a few milder backbends, such as Bow and Bridge Pose, to test the waters before pressing up into full Urdhva Dhanurasana.
How to Perform Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
1. Lie on your back with the soles of your feet flat on the floor underneath your knees, hip width apart and parallel. Bend your elbows and place your hands just above your shoulders with your fingertips pointing toward your feet.
2. Spread your fingers and press your palms down firmly, energetically hugging your elbows toward one another. Rotating your hands slightly outward can help you keep your elbows shoulder width apart as you move into Upward Bow. Draw your elbows back and draw down through your armpits, wrapping your shoulder blades onto your back.
3. Inhale and press firmly down into the four corners of your feet and lift your hips and low back off the mat into a mini-bridge. Exhale and pause. On your next inhale press evenly down through both hands and lift your upper torso off the mat, placing the top of your head lightly on the mat.
4. Widen your hands at least shoulder distance apart, replant your hands down into the mat with your index fingers parallel. Once again isometrically hug your elbow tips toward one another and draw your upper arm bones back into their sockets and shoulder blades onto your back—bringing your chest forward and curling deeper into your upper back while slightly rolling more toward your nose.
5. Maintaining the shoulder integration you just created, push down into the four corners of your feet and evenly through the palms of your hands and straighten your arms, lifting the crown of your head off the floor and coming up into Full Wheel Pose.
6. After a few rounds of breath, slowly begin to re-bend your elbows and tuck your chin toward your chest and lower your torso back to the floor.
Common Misalignments in Wheel Pose (and using props)
The most common misalignment for all backbends is an external rotation of legs: the feet, knees and inner thighs turn out compressing the low back.
1. Starting with the foundation of the pose, your feet must be parallel, and remain parallel, throughout your backbend. To keep the feet parallel you really have to commit to planting the feet firmly on your mat. Press down strongly through the inner edges of the feet and energetically hugging the shins toward one another so that they also stay parallel.
2. Placing a block at its widest width between the inner edges of the feet or the shins will help train your feet and shins from turning out.
3. With the feet committed to remaining parallel, energetically hug your inner knees and thighs toward one another so that they don’t splay apart. (As a general rule in all backbends your legs must remain within the boundaries of the hips; once the knees open wider than the pelvis, the low back begins to narrow.)
4. Once you’ve pressed up into Full Wheel Pose, root down through the inner edges of your feet and soften your buttocks, allowing your inner groins to descend a couple of inches. Then lengthen your tailbone toward your knees.
5. If you continue to experience low back pain, try holding a block between your upper inner thighs and squeezing tight.
6. Students will often put their hands too close together from the start. Check to make sure that your hands are at least as wide as your shoulders and make the necessary adjustments when you pause on the top of your head. Tighter shoulders have the tendency to turn the hands in and widen the elbows apart. One thing you can do is widen the placement of your hands even more and slightly spin your hands outward (away from your torso).
7. Your elbows will inevitably want to splay apart, turning the armpits out to the sides. Keep isometrically drawing your elbows toward one another and hollowing your armpits to bring the chest forward.
8. If you’re having a hard time keeping the elbows from spaying, make a loop with a strap that is the width of your shoulders and place it around your arms above the elbows. The strap will keep the elbows in line and you can even press out into the strap for a little extra lift.
9. Don’t forget to use your legs! In order to keep the spine lengthened (and a nice even curve of the back) you have got to power up the legs, strongly pressing the feet down and forward into the mat. Essentially, you want your chest to move forward through the arms and the arms fairly straight up and down, which also aligns the wrists (decreasing any wrist discomfort you may be experiencing).
Modifications for Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) Using Blocks At The Wall
There are a couple of different ways to use the blocks against the wall to press up into Full Wheel Pose.
1. For students with tighter chests and shoulders, or who are struggling with strength to press the arms straight, wedge two bocks into the wall slightly wider than your shoulders and lie on your back with your head between the blocks. Place your hands on the blocks so that the fingers drape over the edge and place the entire palm of your hand firmly on the block. Make sure that your feet are parallel, and follow the same steps above.
2. For students with tighter quads, hip flexors and low backs, place two blocks flat at their lowest height and hip width apart. Turn the blocks long-ways and have the narrow edges up against the wall. Then lie down on your back with your feet on the blocks at the wall (if you have longer feet than the length of the blocks, curl your toes up the wall and make sure that your heels are on the blocks)—giving you a little more height and freedom than tight hip flexors generally allow for.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (E-RYT 500) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: Shoulder flexibility is highly variable. Much of the time, this is not as dependent on the suppleness of one’s soft tissue as it is on the basic structure of the shoulder joints.
The shoulder joints are comprised of three bones: the humerus (upper arm bones), scapulae (shoulder blades) and clavicles (collar bones). At the top of the scapulae are ridges on the end of which are the coracoid processes.
For people with more flexible shoulder joints, the coracoid processes may sit farther back or may not stick out very far toward the lateral edges of the shoulder. These people have less stable shoulders and will find straightening their arms much easier, because their arms will be vertical or even angled back before their humerus bones hit the coracoid processes.
For others, the ridges on top of the shoulder blades and their coracoid processes may rotate forward and/or extend farther out to the sides. In this case, the humerus bones will come into contact with the coracoid processes much earlier—when the arms are forward of the shoulders.
Both ends of the spectrum—and all points in between—are within the realm of normal. The emphasis on straight arms in Upward Bow simply can’t apply to everyone, again, not because of a deficiency in flexibility, but rather because of the shape and orientation of their shoulder joints. For more information on the variations in shoulder joints, visit Paul Grilley’s website.