Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) strengthens your back body, opens your front body, and stretches the back of your neck, making it an effective preparation for Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and a great pose for keeping your back in good shape. But it can be more challenging than it looks, and you may feel that your ego has been bruised after attempts to practice it are less than satisfying. Three main physical limitations get in the way of building a graceful Bridge: shortness in the front body, stiffness or injury in the neck, and weakness in the back body.
The degree of flexibility in your spine comes into play here, too. If you watch a friend who has a relatively stiff back doing Cat-Cow Pose on hands and knees on the floor, you'll see what I mean. Observe the Cow phase, when the head and tail lift and the spine extends into a backbend. Typically, a stiff middle and upper (thoracic) back will stay rounded in a hump even as the neck and lower back go into the backbend. If your upper back stays rounded like this when you attempt backbending poses such as Bridge or Camel, then the lower back (lumbar spine) will compensate by overarching, or hyperextending. When the lumbar spine extends too much, it becomes vulnerable to painful compression and short, achy lower back muscles. Ideally, the thoracic spine should contribute to the extension, creating a long, spacious arch along the whole spine.
So what keeps the thoracic spine from backward bending into extension? Injury or arthritis in your vertebrae may limit the range of motion, but for many students, the thoracic spine stays rounded because the muscles on the front body and connective tissue around the spine and rib cage are short and tight. These muscular culprits include the pectorals, which run across the front of the chest; the rectus abdominus, which runs straight up the middle of the abdomen between the pubic bones and the front lower ribs; and the internal and external obliques, which form a diagonal cross on the abdomen between pelvis and rib cage. Some of the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) help with exhalation, so if they're short, usually due to poor breathing patterns or prolonged slumping, they too may limit the chest opening.
Muscles become short for two reasons. Either they are regularly worked hard (like the abdominals of someone who does a lot of sit-ups) and not stretched, or they are regularly placed in a shortened position (like those of someone sitting) for long periods of time and not stretched. Supported backbends are an easy antidote. They stretch the rectus abdominus and obliques, open the front ribs and thoracic spine, and when set up properly, feel great.
On a Roll
Start with a towel or small blanket rolled into a cylinder. Lie on your back, with the roll running horizontally across your back. The roll should be placed underneath the thoracic spine in the vicinity of the bottom of the shoulder blades. Make sure it's not under the very lowest ribs or the low back, or that area will overarch and the thoracic will stay in its familiar flexed position. Reach your arms out to the sides, bend your elbows to 90 degrees, and place your forearms on the floor parallel to your body with palms up to help stretch the pectoral muscles across the front of the chest and shoulders. Breathe and relax into the stretch for two to three minutes, then gradually build up to five minutes.
As you become more flexible, you can use bigger blanket rolls or a round (not flat) bolster, but you may want to support your head so you don't hyperextend your neck. Stretching the abdominals, pectorals, and intercostals is most effective when they're warm and tired from your yoga practice or other exercise (especially activities in which your weight is supported by the arms). Aim for stretching them at least three to five times each week.
Next, consider the shoulder position in Bridge. As your pelvis and back rib cage lift off the floor and the arms press down into the floor, the shoulders move into extension. Assuming that the shoulder joint isn't injured, the muscles that limit extension are the same muscles that perform flexion: the upper portion of the pectoralis major, which covers the upper front chest, and the anterior part of the deltoid muscle, which forms the cap covering the shoulder joint. By stretching the pectoralis major and the anterior deltoid, you'll increase the range of motion in shoulder extension, which will enable you to lift your rib cage higher and open your chest more in Bridge.
There are a few ways to do that. Start by interlacing your fingers behind your back, standing or seated, with the cup of the palms facing upward. As you straighten your elbows, move the shoulder blades down away from your ears and back, to open your chest. To increase the stretch, move your hands away from your tailbone without hyperextending your lower back or letting your shoulders roll forward. If your shoulders roll forward, you'll collapse and drop your chest, which you don't want to do in Bridge.
You can also open your chest by simply rotating your shoulders externally. First, find the internal rotation by standing in front of a mirror and turning the palms of your hands back toward the wall behind you. Watch how the shoulders rotate in and roll forward toward the chest, the breastbone drops, and thoracic flexion increases. Next turn your palms forward and notice how the shoulders rotate externally. They roll back and down, pressing the whole shoulder blade into the back ribs. This is just the action you want in Bridge and Shoulderstand.
Build your bridge
After lying over a roll and getting a feel for shoulder extension and external rotation, you're ready to do Bridge. Lie on your back with your knees bent and turn your palms up toward the ceiling to position your chest and shoulders properly. If you're new to Bridge, or if you have a stiff back or chest or an injured lower back or neck, start with the modified version called Half Bridge. Lift your tailbone and roll up until you make a straight line from shoulder to hip to knee. Pause there and keep your tailbone strongly lifted. Keep practicing Half Bridge for weeks or even months if you're still struggling with injuries or stiffness.
When you're ready to lift higher, come into the full pose by pressing the shoulder blades into the back ribs as you move the thoracic vertebrae toward the breastbone. Next, bring awarness to your neck. When your chin moves toward your chest, your neck will naturally flatten. To maintain some of the natural curve, touch the underside of your neck and create a little space between the vertebrae and the floor.
Over time, as you're able to lift the chest more, the extensors on the back of the neck will stretch and lengthen, which can be quite a relief if you have short, tight muscles on the back of your neck. However, if you've had whiplash-type injuries, arthritis, or disk injuries in the neck, you might feel pain during or after Bridge Pose. If this is the case, try placing a folded blanket (at least two by three feet), or even two, under the arms and shoulders, with the head on the floor and the neck curving over the edge of the blanket. This should reduce the flattening and therefore the strain on the neck.
Before you take Bridge Pose, it's a good idea to warm up first with standing poses or Sun Salutations. Then lie over a roll to open your chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine, and use a blanket under your shoulders if you have a stiff or vulnerable neck. Practice Half or Full Bridge twice a week. Start where you are, with what you can do, and watch your horizons broaden.
A physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad has a physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon.