Ah, the almighty backbend

Upward Bow Pose – Urdhva Dhanurasana

I still remember the first time I was introduced to upward bow pose during my Ashtanga Yoga class last year. Lying on my back, I tried to figure out the pose by observing other students. All of a sudden, the young lady next to me swiftly pressed herself all the way up and stayed firmly in the pose. The way she powerfully rose up and held the pose like a majestic mountain left me with astonishment until today. What a beautiful pose with the perfect curve of a bow shape! If you ask me what is one pose that embodies strength and flexibility, this is the pose.

Benefits of upward bow pose

As a deep backbend and chest opening practice, upward bow pose, or commonly known as wheel pose, is helpful to improve our overall health in modern life. With long hours spent sitting at the desk for work or study, we tend to lean the body forward, drop the shoulders and hunch the back. This can lead to undesired consequences such as bad posture, muscle tension, back pain and restricted breathing. While the good practice is to keep your self-awareness in maintaining a good body posture, practising backbend to stretch the spine in opposite direction proves to be a good way to counteract the hunched or slouched body posture. Not only upward bow pose can improve spinal mobility, it also strengthens the arms, shoulders, abdomen and legs. You can also benefit from the energy boost by practising this pose. Spiritually, by opening the chest, upward bow pose can help to activate heart chakra which serves as our center of love, compassion, empathy and forgiveness.

Anatomical movement and muscles involved

  • Hip extension and adduction
    – Stretch all the muscles in the front side of the body by eccentric contraction (i.e. lengthening) of rectus abdominis, iliopsoas and quadriceps
    – Strengthen all the muscles in the back side of the body by concentric contraction (i.e. shortening) of erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and hamstrings
    – Concentric contraction of magnus, one of the inner thigh muscles
  • Shoulder external rotation
    – Concentric contraction of infraspinatus and teres minor (Note: Tightness of subscapularis can limit this movement)
    – Eccentric contraction of latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major
  • Posterior pelvic tilt

How to get into the pose?

  1. Begin by lying on your back. Bend your knees perpendicular to the floor. Make sure feet are parallel and hip width apart. Bend your elbows and place your palms on the floor next to the ears with elbows pointing up.
  2. Press your feet into the floor and lift your hips up. Keep your thighs and feet parallel. Then, firmly press the hands into the floor and lift your shoulders up, leaving the crown of your head on the floor. Keep your arms parallel.
  3. Press your feet and hands into the floor. Lift your head up off the floor and straighten the arms. Gaze at your nose tip or in between the eyebrows. Stay in the pose for 5 breaths.
  4. To exit the pose, bend you elbows and tuck your chin into your chest. Slowly lower down your body. Follow up with a counterpose such as hugging knees to chest or seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana).

Tips 

  • Splaying knees and feet to the side will compress the lower back. To keep your knees and feet parallel and hip width apart, try squeezing a block between your thighs or pressing your feet against a block placed between them.
  • Engage your core muscles by lengthening rectus abdominis to create airbag for the protection of lumbar spine. This avoids hyperextension of the lumbar spine in backbend.
  • Aim to open your upper back more. Draw your chest towards the wall behind you. This allows the arms to carry more body weight to allow a leg to lift in one legged wheel pose.
  • Practise wheel walks to build the strength and learn to transfer the weight into one leg then the other.

Up for a challenge?

Here are a few options to advance and deepen the pose:

  • One legged wheel pose
  • Forearm wheel pose
  • Transitioning from wild thing to wheel pose
  • Transitioning from standing to wheel pose and the other way round by walking your hands down or up a wall behind you

Safety precautions

Practise upward bow pose at the end of yoga practice when you have sufficiently warmed up your body and opened your muscles.

Do not practise this pose if you have

  1. Injury with knees, wrists, shoulders, neck, or back
  2. Heart problems
  3. High or low blood pressure

My journey with upward bow pose

Although the pose may look intimidating for a complete beginner, I started to enjoy practising backbend after a few rounds of practice. Not only upward bow pose reminds me of the strength I have within myself, I can feel the beneficial effects of back bending and chest opening shortly after practising this pose. I am able to naturally come to a good body posture with open chest each time after practising this pose. This is much appreciated by someone like me who is so used to being in hunched or slouched body posture. The good effects stay beyond the physical body. Mentally, I feel happier and with the chest opened, I feel my heart is opened as well. I feel like letting everything come and go freely. Like the big sky, every cloud is free to come and go. The sky is big enough to accommodate anything that comes, but in the meantime, the sky is willing to let each of them go when they are ready.

As for my experience of practising this pose, I had trouble with keeping my knees and feet parallel before. As much as I reminded myself not to splay the knees and feet, I tended to point them out when I was lifting myself up off the floor. I only realized my problem after having looked at the photos and videos of myself doing this pose. I would suggest students to identify any possible misalignments in your pose by taking a picture or video of yourself in this pose from different angles. From the diagonal top-down view, you can clearly see if your feet and hands are parallel and in line with each other. From the side view, you can see if your shins are perpendicular to the floor and whether you need to straighten your arms more and push your chest forward more. From the diagonal bottom view, this is how you will be amazed at the almighty backbend standing tall like a mountain.

Remember, flexibility comes with consistent practice. 

 

With love,
Wei Li