Indian mythology is rich with references to the bow (dhanu in Sanskrit), a simple stringed weapon that enables a steady and skilled archer to defeat an enemy. Bow Pose, or Dhanurasana, extends the body back into the shape of a bow as the arms reach back straight and taut, forming the “string” of the pose. Done properly, Dhanurasana is a superb back strengthener that can help vanquish the postural enemy of rounded shoulders. Arching the body backward opens the chest and provides a powerful stretch for the front of the shoulders and the quadriceps—a wonderful antidote to all the time we spend “crunched” forward in daily life. Regular practice of this pose helps keep the spine flexible and counters the tendency to slump forward.
The next time you need an afternoon pick-me-up, skip the espresso and look no further than Bow Pose. Like all other backbends, Dhanurasana is dynamic and energizing. Stretching the front body increases the flow of blood to the digestive tract and enhances the efficiency of the stomach, liver, and intestines, while contracting the back body stimulates the kidneys and adrenal glands—tiny organs that sit above your kidneys that produce hormones that regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions.
Bow Pose also offers the opportunity to practice diaphragmatic breathing, which can reduce anxiety. This heart-opening pose releases your chest and shoulders while strengthening your back muscles for better posture (no more slouching over your computer!). It also stretches your psoas, deep hip flexors, which can often hold stress.
As you move into this pose, you may think of the limitations that stop you from keeping your legs together, lifting your chest, or reaching your feet. When you reach this edge, breathe into it: honing in on these weak or tight spots can bring a physical and mental release.
While many yogis tend to hold their breath in backbends, Bow Pose naturally opens your rib cage and actually creates more space for deep breathing. It’s the perfect opportunity to face a challenge head-on and take your practice off your mat. It’s not easy to breathe in a backbend, but stretching and strengthening your diaphragm in this way can lower your heart rate and regulate blood pressure, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety and helps you to relax.
When you find yourself in conflict with your partner, working too many hours, or frustrated by traffic, take a moment to remember Bow Pose. Accept where you’re at, ground into your body, and find yourself slowly relaxing with each deep inhale and exhale.Section divider
Bow Pose Basics
Sanskrit: Dhanurasana (don-your-AHS-anna)
dhanu = bow
asana = pose
Pose Type: Backbend
Why We Love It: “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 ColumnistSection divider
Bow Pose stretches the entire front body, ankles, thighs, deep hip flexors (psoas), abdomen, chest, and throat. It strengthens the back muscles and improves posture.
Other bow pose perks:
- Stimulates abdominal organs and relieves constipation.
- Relieves mild backaches, fatigue, anxiety, and menstrual discomfort.
- Begin on your belly with your legs hip-distance apart and your palms on the mat beside your lower ribs.
- Extend your feet straight back and press down with the tops of all 10 toenails to activate your quadriceps.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Press your thighs into the mat.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lift your thighs off the mat. Begin with your inner thighs.
- Relax your glutes.
- Continue to press your shins back and away from your hands as you reach your sternum forward and up, balancing on your navel.
- Lift your gaze slightly so the curve of your neck is a continuation of the curve of your upper back.
- 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.
Explore the pose
- 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.
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.)
Bow Pose variations
Bow Pose with a strap
If it is challenging to reach your hands to our ankles, use a strap to extend your reach. (If you don’t have a strap, you can instead use a belt, towel, or sweatshirt.)
Half Bow Pose
Lift one leg at a time. 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 backbend. Hold for several breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Half Bow Pose with a strap
Try with just one leg at a time, using a strap to extend your reach. (If you don’t have a strap, you can instead use a belt, towel, or sweatshirt.) Loop the strap around your foot. Use the other arm to prop yourself up on your forearm into a backbend. Hold for several breaths. Repeat on the other side.Section divider
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.
Pavanamuktasana (Wind-Relieving Pose, in which you lie on your back with your knees drawn into your chest)Section divider
Your body in Bow Pose | 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.
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 rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and triceps continue to lift your legs and deepen the stretch.
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.
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.Section divider
Put Bow Pose into practice
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.