Urdhva Dhanurasana – upward bow pose, also known as wheel pose, is a back bending pose. It’s one of the deepest backbends and many other poses we do in yoga is actually preparing for this pose. In this pose, we try to get both legs as straight as possible and shift the chest as backwards as possible, deepening the bend. It is not literally an inverted U shape, but one more skewed to the side.
I have learnt about the anatomy of the spine in my 50 hr Yin Yoga teacher’s training with Jo Phee this year and it gave me a clearer understand of how this pose works.
To get into this pose, I shall break it into 3 parts:
Bending in the lumbar spine (lower back)
Flexibility of the lumbar spine is determined by how much the vertebrates are able to bend, without reaching compression. This is more or less fixed, for adults, where bone growth is not happening anymore. When we try to do a back bend, we stop where we feel limitation from bending more. So what is happening, you wonder…
First, get into the pose and bend as much as you can until you cannot go more and you feel something.
- If you are feeling it on your back, where the spine is – that is compression at the lumbar area and you have reached your maximum back bend based on your skeletal structure. There is not much you can do to bend further.
- If you feel tight around the front of your body, where your abdominal muscles are, and not really on your spine – it means you’re muscles are at tension and you have potential to bend more if only those muscles gets loosened up. There’s still more room for you to bend.
Open shoulders and chest
So you’ve reached compression at your lumbar spine and cannot bend further, is there more you can do for this pose? Yes there is! The next part to getting into a wheel is to open up your chest. A lot of people start off and deal with tightness in the chest and shoulder areas, way more than tightness in the abs.
This may not come across as obvious to many, but the opening of the shoulder plays a huge role in forming the wheel. Open shoulders are required for pushing your chest forward and this action of pushing your chest forward in the pose will feel quite deep.
In case anyone is wondering why I did not mention about “bending from the upper back” – it’s because the upper back where your ribs are, do not literally bend. Anatomically speaking, the thoracic spine (where ribs are), are naturally rounded. From the side our spine (assuming no conditions like scoliosis), our spine looks somewhat like a very soft S curve. What we must do with our upper thoracic spine is to merely straighten it. By default it is rounding in (bending forward), and the most you can do it pull yourself straight up – a movement anyone should be able to perform. It will stop there, it will not bend backwards. The illusion of back bending comes when you squeeze your shoulder blades together, squeezing the muscle (rhomboid) in between (to do so, this muscle must not be tight), so you an push your chest forward.
Besides the rhomboid, the muscles at the front of your chest like pectoral or deltoids must be adequately loosened up and not restricting your flexibility. Only then can your shoulders open more and chest push forward more.
Extended puppy pose is a very good pose to help open up the shoulders.
For extended puppy pose, we get into somewhat like a child’s pose, knees hip width apart, and walk forward until hips comes vertically above the knees. From there, aim to get your chest touching the ground, and then the armpits. For more challenge (only if your chest is already touching), with elbows fixed on the ground shoulder width apart, interlock both palms and bend the elbow until interlocked palms reaches behind your head.
I started off hating this pose but without even realising, i became open enough to feel very comfortable here, chest reaching the ground very easily. I didn’t realise that this was what made me improve in my Wheel pose so much, until I look back at it in retrospect!
You can’t hold a back bend unless you have strong legs, especially the thighs. Legs do not bend back wards, but it is required to keep you up in this pose, keeping the weight balanced in your body. Your legs must feel very stable before you attempt to go deeper in the pose!
Leg strength will definitely build up with regular yoga practice, through so many common poses in all classes. Just give yourself time and go for class regularly and take leg strengthening pose seriously.
I don’t usually take progress pictures on purpose but I happened to have pictures from a year ago, April 2015. I was attempting an Instagram yoga challenge and the pose was one legged upward bow pose, Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana.
April 2015 – I struggled so hard to get up. See how my arms can’t go near vertically straight? My shoulders were not open so I couldn’t shift my chest forward! Also, my legs were shaking. I had to keep knee bent here because I didn’t have strength to push it straighter. I would fall out any moment balancing on one leg.
October 2015 – Half a year later, my shoulders have significant improvement through extended puppy pose training. However, I wasn’t able to get the top leg any higher and the bottom leg was not very stable yet. The knees still had to bend a lot.
April 2016 – One year later, my shoulders are well opened and my legs have become a lot stronger. I don’t really encounter this pose in class and I don’t practice it on my own but I just happened to try one day and was surprised to see how improvement there is! The leg is slightly more vertical than the last picture and legs are now a lot more stable.
Wheel pose variations
For those who wants to experience the pose but want less feeling on the lower back, you can try with tip toes. Tip toes actually gives the body more room so your bending angle will reduce. This is actually the easier variation, so if you can manage with both heels down, there’s no good reason to have heels up.
For me, I could get my top leg vertical with my bottom heel up in Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana.
There isn’t much difference from the normal wheel, you need the same openness, strength and flexibility, but for this variation it can feel deeper in the chest opening and lower back bend. Attempt it only after you are comfortable with the normal whee