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Bow Pose

Bend back into the shape of a bow to feel energetically locked, loaded, and ready to take aim.


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If you’re among the millions of people glued to a desk for hours upon hours every day, then you need Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) in your life. This heart-opening backbend stretches your hip flexors and hamstrings (aka the muscles that are shortened and tightened, respectively, from all that sitting) while strengthening your back. It helps improve your posture by opening your chest and shoulders, counteracting the time you spend hunched over your computer.

You may find yourself holding your breath in Bow Pose—resist this urge. Expanding through the front, back, and sides of your body stretches the diaphragm so that you can take deeper breaths. Breathing more deeply can lower your heart rate, regulate blood pressure, and help you relax. Strengthening your diaphragm through your yoga practice will help you get out of your head, stay grounded in your body, and quiet your mind—on and off the mat.

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Sanskrit

Dhanurasana (don-your-AHS-anna)

dhanu = bow

asana = pose

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Bow Pose Basics

Pose Type: Backbend

Targets: Core

Benefits: Like all backbends, Bow Pose is energizing and stimulates the adrenal glands, which can help you fight fatigue. It also increases blood flow to your digestive system. It may help to build confidence and empowerment. Bow Pose also improves posture and counteracts the effects of sitting for extended periods of time, such as slouching and kyphosis (abnormal curvature of the spine). It may help relieve back pain. It stretches your abdomen, chest, shoulders, front of your hips (hip flexors), and the front of your thighs (quadriceps). Bow Pose strengthens your back muscles, the back of your thighs, and buttocks (glutes).

Other bow pose perks:

  • Stimulates abdominal organs and relieves constipation.
  • Relieves mild backaches, fatigue, anxiety, and menstrual discomfort.
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How to

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  1. Begin on your belly with your legs hip-distance apart and your palms on the mat beside your lower ribs.
  2. Extend your feet straight back and press down with the tops of all 10 toenails to activate your quadriceps.
  3. Rotate your inner thighs toward the ceiling (to broaden your lower back) and firm your outer ankles into your midline (to prevent your feet from turning inward).
  4. Keep your hands on the mat as you lift your head and chest a few inches off the mat and keep a slight tuck of your chin. Roll your shoulders back and up.
  5. Bend your knees and reach back with your hands to clasp the outside of your ankles. (Be certain to reach back with both hands at the same time.) This hand position puts your shoulders in internal rotation, so roll your shoulders back and up again.
  6. Press your thighs into the mat.
  7. Keep your feet flexed and your outer ankles from bowing out. Press the bottoms of your feet up toward the ceiling to energize your legs.
  8. Keep your thighs on the mat as you push your shins toward the wall in back of you as you lift and open your chest. Roll your shoulders back again to reinforce the external rotation.
  9. Lift your thighs off the mat. Begin with your inner thighs.
  10. Relax your glutes.
  11. Continue to press your shins back and away from your hands as you reach your sternum forward and up, balancing on your navel.
  12. Lift your gaze slightly so the curve of your neck is a continuation of the curve of your upper back.
  13. Hold for 5–10 breaths. To ease out of the pose, bend your knees and lower your legs to the floor. Then release your grip.
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Beginner tips

  • Sometimes beginners find it difficult to lift their thighs away from the floor. Give your legs an assist by lying with your thighs supported on a folded or rolled-up blanket.
  • You may find your knees want to splay out to the sides. Keep them hip-distance apart.
  • If you find it difficult to balance in Bow Pose, try it while you lie on one side on your mat. This allows you to practice the shape of the pose before you also need to maintain your balance.
  • Notice if you tend to hold your breath in this pose. That only makes it more challenging. Keep your breath slow and steady.
  • If you experience any pinching, compression, or pain in your low back, slowly lower until you feel comfortable or come out of the pose. Start slowly and listen to your body as you progress.

Be mindful

Avoid or modify this pose if you have high or low blood pressure, suffer from migraines or a hernia, or have any issues with your low back or neck.

Avoid this pose if you are pregnant.

Deepen the pose

  • Grip your ankles more firmly and then bend your elbows and try to straighten your legs. This increases the stretch in your front body and intensifies the bend of your back body.
  • Bring your thighs, calves, and inner feet to touch. (Do not attempt this if you have low back issues.)
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Teacher tip

Sometimes beginners find it difficult to lift their thighs away from the floor. Students can give their legs a little upward boost by lying with their thighs supported on a rolled-up blanket.

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Variations

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Bow Pose with a strap

If it is challenging to reach your ankles, place a strap around your ankles to extend your reach. You can clasp the strap behind your back, with your arms extended straight behind you as if you were reaching for your ankles, or you can reach above and hold the strap from overhead.(If you don’t have a strap, you can instead use a belt, towel, or sweatshirt.)

Photo: Andrew Clark

Half Bow Pose

Lift one leg at a time and use one hand to reach back and grab either the same or opposite leg, depending on which is more comfortable for you. Use the other arm to prop yourself up on your forearm into a slight backbend. You can loop a strap around your foot to extend your reach. (If you don’t have a strap, you can instead use a belt, towel, or sweatshirt.)

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Why we love this pose

“I began to deepen my practice of Dhanurasana when I came to understand it translates to ‘Bow’ pose. I am a Sagittarius rising, and I find Dhanurasana fitting for me, since Sagittarius is the archer. While practicing the pose, I imagine myself as a bow and my breath as an arrow, slicing through stagnant spaces within my whole being. It opens my thighs, pelvic region, abdominal, and heart spaces, which is needed for me as an ex-football player. I recently was invited to deepen my understanding of the philosophical roots of yoga. In that process, I have opened to this asana even more. I have been practicing Dhanurasana while meditating on the removal of what in Jainism is called ‘pudgala druvya,’ a type of material substance that can keep us in samsara (cycle of death and rebirth).” —Cameron Allen, YJ astrology columnist

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Preparatory and counter poses

Before attempting this intense pose, bring your body into progressively challenging backbends as well as poses that stretch the front of your hips and legs.

Preparatory poses

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Salabhasana (Locust Pose)

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Virasana (Hero Pose)

Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose)

Counter poses

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

Pavanamuktasana (Wind-Relieving Pose, in which you lie on your back with your knees drawn into your chest)

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Anatomy

In Dhanurasana, the various parts of your body—hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders on the upper body and feet, ankles, knees, and hips on the lower body—work together to simultaneously stretch your entire front side and strengthen your back.

To continue with the bow analogy, when you reach for your ankles with your arms, the string tighten the bow, which stretches as it resists the action, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

An anatomy illustration of the body in Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

To bring your ankles within reach of your hands, you need to first engage the gluteus maximus to extend the hips and then contract the hamstrings and bend your knees. The posterior deltoids and triceps contract as you extend your elbows and straighten your arms so your hands can grip your ankles.

As you dorsiflex your ankles, you engage the tibialis anterior muscles. Contract the peroneus longus and brevis muscles along the outside of your lower legs to turn your ankles slightly outward to help create a lock for the hands to more firmly grip the ankles.

The rhomboids (between your shoulder blades and spine) draw your shoulder blades toward one another and open your chest. The lower trapezius draws your shoulders away from your neck. Together, the actions of the rhomboidsposterior deltoids, and triceps continue to lift your legs and deepen the stretch.

An anatomy drawing of Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Several muscles work together to arch your back. The erector spinae (running the length of your spine) and the quadratus lumborum (in the small of your back) engage to extend the back. When this happens, your spine curves more, loosening the string of the bow (the arms grasping the ankles). To re-tighten the string of the bow while maintaining the extension of the spine, activate the quadriceps to extend the knees.

An anatomy illustration of Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Bow brings an intense stretch to the entire front of your body, including your rectus abdominus and deep hip flexors (psoas). When you activate the rectus abdominus, you create an “abdominal airbag” effect by compressing the abdominal organs against the spine and, through reciprocal inhibition, this relaxes the arching of your lumbar spine.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Backbends and Twists by Ray Long

Put Bow Pose into practice

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About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.