Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) can be quite adjustable depending on what your body needs. It is both a powerful back-bending posture and an inversion, since the head is below the heart. It can be an active pose or resting.
In Bridge, you can activate your muscles—feet, legs, back—to lift upward for a dynamic strengthening pose. But it can be a restorative position if you place a block or bolster under your hips to support the low back. Either way, this pose works to open your chest and expand your thoracic spine, your middle and upper back.
“When your Bridge is aligned so that there is no compression in the lower back and the emphasis is on opening the middle and upper back, the pose can release tight spots in ways that will benefit you in both your practice and your daily life,” explains Yoga Journal contributor Natasha Rizopoulos. “It will also help you in Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) and deeper backbends, so that those transformative poses are equally sweet.”
In Sanskrit, setu is “bridge,” sarva is “all,” and anga is “limb.” So in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, the pose you make with your body uses all your limbs to create a bridge. Make a mental picture of a bridge over tranquil water as you breathe deep and muster your energy to lift into this pose.Section divider
Bridge Pose basics
Sanskrit: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (SET-too BAHN-dah Sahr-von-GAH-sah-nah)
Setu = bridge
Bandha = lock
Sarva = all
Anga = limb
Pose type: Backbend
Targets: CoreSection divider
Bridge Pose improves posture and counteracts slouching and kyphosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) that can result from prolonged sitting and computer work.
Other Bridge Pose perks:
- Stretches your abdomen, chest, and the area around your shoulders while strengthening your back muscles, buttocks (glutes), thighs, and ankles.
- May help relieve low-back pain.
- Shares many of the potential benefits of conventional inversions. The pose can be used as an alternative by anyone with contraindications for coming into Headstand and Shoulderstand.
Bridge Pose: Step-by-step instructions
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the mat beneath your knees. Adjust your feet and knees to be hip-distance apart and parallel.
- Maintain the natural curve of your neck. There should be space between your cervical spine and the floor.
- Press down with your feet and lift your hips. Actively maintain the parallel position of your thighs so your knees don’t splay apart.
- Keep your arms alongside your body, palms down, or interlace your fingers beneath your back, then carefully roll your shoulders and upper arms out and tuck your shoulders and arms under your back.
- Press down with your shoulders and inhale to inflate your upper body. Lift your shoulder blades and thoracic spine up, making sure your cervical vertebrae are still off the mat.
- Once in the pose, roll your inner thighs inward and down and keep them parallel. Direct your tailbone toward the backs of your knees.
- Without lifting or moving your feet, try to pull your heels toward your hands to engage your hamstrings. Press into your heels and lift your hips any amount more.
- Use exhalations to press down with your feet and shoulders; use inhalations to lift your hips and chest. Hold for anywhere from 5 breaths to 1 minute.
- To finish, exhale, release your hands and shoulders, and lower to the floor. Allow your back to rest in a neutral state as you pause here.
Explore the pose
- If you have tight shoulders or feel intense discomfort when you try to bind your hands behind your back, place your arms down alongside your body instead.
- Once the shoulders are rolled under, be sure not to pull them forcefully away from your ears, which tends to overstretch the neck. Lift the tops of the shoulders slightly toward the ears.
- Maintaining the natural curve of your neck is a crucial element of the pose that often gets lost when your shoulders are dragged down as they are tucked under. When you shrug your shoulders slightly closer to your ears, notice how this softens your trapezius muscles at the base of your neck and emphasizes the cervical curve.
Contraindications and cautions
Avoid this pose if you have a neck injury. Only do this pose under the supervision of a teacher with experience in anatomy.
Deepen the pose
Once in Bridge Pose, lift your heels off the floor to lift higher and push your tailbone up, a little closer to the pubis. Then lower the heels back to the floor again.Section divider
Bridge Pose variations
Bridge Pose with a block
Place and hold a block between your thighs to focus on inner thigh strength and keep the knees from splaying out.
Supported Bridge Pose
For a more relaxed version, set a block at any height under your sacrum, the flat part of your low back. You may want to use a blanket on the block for extra padding. If it’s more comfortable, turn your palms up. Stay here as long as comfortable, then lift the hips to remove the block and slowly lower down.
Supported Bridge Pose with a strap
Bring a looped strap around your thighs so your knees are about hip-distance apart. For an active version of the pose that focuses on strengthening your outer thighs, firmly spread your knees against the resistance of the strap. For a more relaxed version, put a block at any height below your sacrum (the flat part of your low back), and rest in the pose for as long as comfortable. Remove the block, then slowly lower down.Section divider
Preparatory and counter poses
Start with various poses that are less-intense backbends before you attempt Bridge Pose to gradually warm up your back. Also, any shape that stretches your hip flexors will help prepare you to lift your hips with ease.
Counter posesSection divider
Your body in Bridge Pose | Anatomy
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana combines arching the back with extending the shoulders to lift the pelvis and torso. Additionally, the pose stretches the flexor muscles at the front of the pelvis, including the psoas and its synergists, 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.
The pose passively stretches the quadriceps along the front of the thighs, the psoas high at the top of the hips and thighs, the rectus abdominis in the abdomen, the pectoralis major in the chest, the deltoids cloaking the shoulders, and the biceps at the front of the upper arms.
Extending the hips lengthens the psoas and its synergists of hip flexion: the pectineus, the adductors longus and brevis, and the sartorius. The rectus femoris also stretches.
When you contract the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles, you draw the pelvis upward.
Contract the triceps to extend the elbows and straighten the arms. Interlace the fingers and then gently turn the palms upward to supinate the forearms. Drawing the shoulder blades toward the midline stretches the serratus anterior muscles.
When you contract the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles along the spine, your back arches. Continue to engage these muscles along with the gluteals so the pelvis tilts into retroversion (backward) while the lumbar spine extends.
Once the pelvis is lifted, relax the hamstrings and activate the quadriceps to deepen the pose. (Remember that the quadriceps activate the knees. Because the feet are fixed on the mat, attempting to straighten the knees actually lifts the torso.)Section divider
Put Setu Bandha Sarvangasana 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.