Open Shoulders, Bigger Backbends


By Jason Crandell  |  

Do you ever wonder what you’ll find around the next corner? Maybe you’re curious about what’s beyond the bend while you’re hiking or what’s on the next block while you’re exploring an unfamiliar city. Or maybe you find yourself wondering what the next phase of your life will bring.

When it comes to backbending, Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose) is just around the corner from Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). But since it requires significantly more openness in the shoulders than Urdhva Dhanurasana, it often remains just out of view.

By using props, you can help prepare your shoulders for the flexion and external rotation that Viparita Dandasana requires. You might associate props with being a beginner, or you might think of them as a crutch. But when you learn to use props creatively, you’ll see that they can help reinforce certain actions that difficult poses require. In the case of Viparita Dandasana, they can help bridge the gap between where you are now and what lies ahead.

Action Plan

To do the required arm movements in Viparita Dandasana without straining your shoulders, you need to be able to externally rotate your arm bones while you flex them deeply (taking them up and slightly behind your head). These actions demand flexibility in the triceps and in the upper and middle fibers of the trapezius as well as openness all along your side body, including the latissimus dorsi.

The End Game

When the muscles around your shoulders are tight, it can be difficult to externally rotate and flex the arms to the degree needed. You’ll know you’re tight if your elbows tend to separate and splay. By using props to help you stretch and prepare your muscles, you’ll imprint the sensations of the actions, which will make it easier to access them in Viparita Dandasana. The aim is to work on opening your body until the final pose feels even and spacious, without strain.

Warm-Up

Even with props, Cow Face Pose) and Garudasana (Eagle Pose). Awaken the muscles of your trunk and ready your spine with a steady progression of backbends, including Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana. Practice each backbend 2 to 4 times and maintain each for 5 breaths or more.

Elbows-on-Chair Stretch

Propping: Elbows on a chair with a block between your hands.

Why This Works: This variation brings your arms into external rotation and flexion and mimics the arm position of the final pose. It stretches the triceps and the middle and upper fibers of the trapezius. The block keeps the upper arms and elbows in the correct position, which is shoulder-width apart.

How To: Fold your sticky mat and place it on the seat of a chair for padding. Set the back of the chair against a wall. Place a blanket under your knees to help cushion them. Kneel in front of the chair and place your elbows on the front edge of the seat (on the folded mat), shoulder-width apart. Hold a block between the base of your palms. Slowly walk your knees away from the chair until they are under your hips and your shoulders are parallel to the chair seat.

Bring your awareness to your abdomen, lower back, and hips. You may have a tendency to sink into your abdomen, allowing too much curve and compression in your lower back. To correct this—and to shift the desired opening to your shoulders—gently draw your navel toward your spine and lengthen your lower back.

With your pelvis and lower back neutral, you will feel a stretch in your shoulders and arms. Deepen this sensation by rooting your elbows downward into the chair and gently squeezing the block between your hands. Create the action of lengthening your elbows toward the wall and drawing the inner border of your shoulder blades toward your tailbone. These actions are subtle and won’t amount to much actual movement.

Breathe into the sides of your rib cage and feel the expansiveness of your upper body. After 8 to 10 breaths in the pose, walk your knees forward toward the chair. Once all of your weight is off your shoulders, sit back on your heels and lift your elbows off the chair.

Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose)

Propping: A strap, made into the largest loop possible, around your lifted foot.

Why This Works: This pose reinforces the arm movements you’ll do in the final pose. It also prepares the lower body by stretching the hip flexors, thighs, and iliopsoas.

To get the most out of this pose, keep your elbows hugged in toward the midline of the pose. If you’re tight, the elbows will want to open out to the side. Resist this, even if you have to move your arm forward in space.

How To: Before you begin, a side note: Avoid allowing the strap loop to fit snugly around the foot in Natarajasana. By making the loop larger, you can eventually take your hand off the wall and have each hand hold a side of the strap to get more efficient, balanced leverage.

Stand next to a wall. With the strap in your right hand, place your left hand on the wall. Keeping your right arm low, reach back and loop the strap around your right foot. Bend your right knee and pull your right heel toward your sitting bone. Bend your right elbow and bring it forward and then up toward the ceiling until your elbow is next to your ear.

Deepen the actions. Tilt your pelvis forward as if you were doing a forward bend on your left leg. From there, contract your right hamstring muscles and lift your right thigh as high as it will go. Next, lift your chest. If you feel steady, take your left hand away from the wall and hold the strap with both hands, palms facing forward. Hug the elbows toward each other.

Finish the pose by walking one or both hands down the loop toward your right foot. Press your foot back against the strap as you reach your forearms toward the ceiling. Create an even degree of sensation throughout the backbend.

After 7 to 10 breaths, release the strap with your left hand and place the hand on the wall. Lower your right elbow forward and down—not out to the side—and let go of the strap. Pause for a moment before repeating the pose on your other side.

Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose)

Propping: Blocks under the feet. Elbows on a blanket or sticky mat.

Why This Works: Elevating the feet with blocks allows you to lift the pelvis and thighs higher, giving you more leverage to get on top of your elbows and head. A support underneath the elbows effectively lifts the floor up to you.

How To: In the full version of this pose, the legs are straight. We’ll practice the pose with bent knees to make it more accessible. It’s not recommended that you straighten the legs with this propping because it will put stress on your lower back. You must be able to press into Urdhva Dhanurasana on your own before trying any version of Viparita Dandasana.

Place two blocks against a wall, hip-width apart. Have a folded blanket or an extra rolled mat nearby, and lie face-up, feet toward the wall. Place your feet on the blocks and your sitting bones as close to the blocks as possible. Place the folded blanket or rolled sticky mat just behind you, touching the top of your head.

Place your hands next to your ears and press into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Bend your elbows, and lower the crown of your head to the floor so that your forehead is almost touching the support. (Note: If you don’t have the strength to lift into Urdhva Dhanurasana with your feet on the blocks, remove the blocks and try again with your feet on the floor.) Bring your hands into Headstand position: Place your right forearm on the floor, your right elbow on the blanket. Do the same thing with your left arm, and interlace your fingers behind your head. Press your elbows down and lift your shoulder blades away from your ears. Even though your head stays on the floor, the majority of your weight should be supported by the actions of your arms and shoulders.

After 5 to 8 breaths, place your hands next to your head and lift your head off the floor. Tuck your chin and lower yourself all the way down. Allow a few moments of stillness to feel the effects of practicing this pose.

Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.