I first tried Urdhva Dhanurasana early in my days of learning yoga, and it was difficult! Many years on, it’s still a challenge everytime I try to get into the posture. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of Urdhva Dhanurasana and understand what are the muscles involved, and how we can deepen the posture.
- Scapulae (shoulder blades) are upwardly rotated and elevated
- Arms are flexed
- Elbows are extended
- Forearms are pronated
- There’s dorsiflexion in the wrist
- Hips are extended
- Legs are adducted
- Knees are flexed
- Ankles are in plantar flexion
What muscles are worked?
1. Hamstrings and glutes
The hamstrings and gluteus maximus work together to extend your hips. Find the sweet spot where you’re using just enough gluteal muscle to extend your hip without gripping so much that you externally rotate your femur.
Adductor magnus and gracilis are responsible for extending, adducting and internally rotating the hip. By engaging your adductors, especially your adductor magnus, you will help keep your thighs parallel in the pose. Articularis genu and vastii extend the knee.
3. Spinal muscles
The spinal extensors contract concentrically to help to maximize the extension of the spine. In the same way, the small muscles in the neck help you lift the head away from the floor.
4. Shoulders & rotator cuff muscles
The external rotators (infraspinatus, teres minor) and posterior deltoids all engage to keep your upper arms externally rotated in the pose. Deltoids work to flex your shoulders and serratus anterior laterally rotates your shoulder blades. The deltoid and the rotator cuff muscles are also responsible for stabilizing and protecting the shoulder joint. The biceps brachii and the anterior deltoidflex the shoulder and the triceps brachii extend the elbow.
5. Arm muscles
Triceps contract to straighten your arms. Pronator quadratus pronate the forearm and the intrinsic muscles of the wrist and hand help to stabilize the hand.
What muscles are stretched?
If you’re using your hamstrings, glutes, and adductors properly to support the weight of your pelvis, your quads don’t have to work as hard and they will stretch more effectively.
- Hip flexors — illopsoas & rectus femoris
- Abdominals — especially rectus abdominis. You may also get a mild stretch in your intercostal muscles.
- Chest and shoulders
Your latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor all stretch in Upward Bow.
How to progress in the posture?
After looking at the muscles worked in the posture, we can understand that there might be one or more areas that are preventing us from getting into the full posture. To slowly work into a full wheel pose, the following modifications can help us develop the strength and flexibility required.
1. Addressing tight shoulders: prepare for chest opening with blocks or a yoga wheel
You can place the yoga blocks under your shoulder blades to open up the chest in a very gentle manner. If you are ready for a more intense chest opening, use 2 yoga blocks.
You can have your hands by your side with the palms facing up. This encourages the shoulders to come back and down. Alternatively, you can have the arms over the head as in the picture. Just one note, if your hands don’t touch the floor, place a pillow under the hands as it may put too much pressure on the shoulders.
A yoga wheel can also be a great way to prepare for wheel pose. In the first option, the yoga wheel is just under the neck. In the second the yoga wheel is just under the shoulder blades, making this more intense of a stretch. Both options are great to work on if you are trying to help prepare your body for wheel pose. Just make sure you feel comfortable and can breathe comfortably in the option you are working on.
If Urdhva Dhanurasana is too difficult, you can work on bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana) to open up your chest.
2. Weak arms & legs: focus on building strength
As we have discovered in the previous sections, a lot of the muscles in the arms and legs are used to aid in achieving the spine extension. You can practise more rounds of sun salutation to build up strength in the arms and legs.
3. Stiff spine: warm up spine with cat & cow as preparatory pose
If you are unable to get into a full wheel pose because your spine is stiff, warm your spine up for the posture by doing a few rounds of cat & cow before getting into the wheel pose. Remember, it’s always important to make sure your body is warmed up enough before attempting challenging postures such as Urdhva Dhanurasana!
4. Legs are not adducting enough: use a strap around the thighs
The tendency in this yoga pose is that the knees and feet turn out when you lift your body up. This may cause compression in the lower back. To prevent this from happening, put a strap around your thighs just above the knees. This helps to hold the thighs hip-width apart and parallel to each other.
5. Arms opening outwards: use a strap around upper arms
Just like your thighs, your arms also have a tendency to drift apart in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Put a strap around your upper arms to avoid this. The loop in the strap should be about the width of your shoulders. Sling this around your arms just above the elbows before lifting into the pose.
6. Use block against the wall
One issue that often restricts the full movement into Urdhva Dhanurasana is that the armpits or groins are tight. To increase your range of motion, you can place yoga blocks under either your hands or your feet. Place the blocks against a wall and place each hand or foot on one block. Then, push yourself up into the full pose.
7. Practise on a wall
Using the wall is an excellent way to practise getting into a lot of the difficult postures. If the posture is inaccessible and there are too many areas to work on, you can reap the benefits of a backbend and get your body familiarised with backbending by doing it on the wall instead.
With time and effort, we will slowly develop the strength and flexibility required to get into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Don’t give up just yet, and enjoy the many benefits practising Upward Bow brings us!