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Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose or Upward-Facing Bow Pose) is an intense backbend which challenges plenty of students.
“There was a time when backbends and I seriously didn’t get along,” says yoga teacher Kathryn Budig, “To be honest, I think I disliked them simply because I wasn’t good at them. They frustrated me. These gorgeous shapes looked like they should feel so good and yet when I attempted them I felt like I had just gotten back from a trip to the cement factory. I wanted my body to keep going but my spine wouldn’t budge. I’d look at the bendy spines around me and wonder how I missed out on the flexy-vertebra handouts.So, I walked away defeated and kept working on everything else.”
Over time, Budig, like many of us, learned that you can’t “own” a backbend or “do” one—you surrender to it, just like every other part of yoga. Keep in mind that a pose like this, like any yoga pose, doesn’t need to look perfect to be effective and valuable—it simply needs to be safe, maintain strong alignment, and make you feel good.
Wheel Pose basics
Sanskrit: Urdhva Dhanurasana (OORD-vah don-your-AHS-anna)
Other names: Upward-Facing Bow Pose
Pose type: Backbend
Targets: Full body
Why we love it: “Wheel Pose was the peak pose that I used when teaching my first ever class. I’ve noticed that many people can be intimidated by it, but what makes it so special is how many people can enter into it when they thought it wasn’t possible. You can surprise yourself in this pose, demonstrating strength that you didn’t know you had, but that’s been there all along.” —Yoga Journal assistant editor, Kyle Houseworth
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This energy-boosting pose stretches your chest and lungs. It also strengthens your arms, wrists, legs, buttocks, abdomen and spine.
Wheel Pose: Step-by-step instructions
- Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted hip-distance apart and parallel, directly under your knees, which should also be hip-distance apart.
- Place your hands alongside your ears with your palms down and your fingers pointing toward your shoulders.
- Without letting your feet or your knees splay apart, take an inhalation, then use an exhalation to lift yourself partway and place the crown of your head on the mat. Do not rest any of your weight on your head.
- Pin your elbows into your midline, draw your elbows toward one another, pull your upper arms into their sockets, and start to arch your middle and upper back.
- Maintaining all these actions, with the next inhalation, press down with your hands and feet, and lift into the pose.
- Straighten your arms as much as possible but keep at least a slight bend in your knees.
- Make sure your feet have not turned out, and root down with your big toe mounds.
- Rotate your inner thighs to the floor, and reach your tailbone toward your feet toward the backs of your knees. Let your head hang freely, and lift your sternum in the direction you are facing while directing your tailbone toward your feet.
- To deepen, walk your feet closer to your hands, keeping your forearms and shins perpendicular to the floor and parallel to each other.
- Hold for 5–10 breaths (walk your feet out if they had moved in), then lower directly to the floor (without stopping on the crown).
Turn your upper thighs slightly inward and firm your outer thighs. Narrow your hip points and lengthen your tailbone toward the backs of your knees, lifting your pubis toward the navel.
Teaching Wheel Pose
This cue will help protect your students from injury and help them have the best experience of the pose:
- Tight armpits and/or groins can restrict full movement into this pose. You can support either your hands or feet on a pair of blocks to help yourself realize the full backbend. Brace the blocks against a wall, and if you like, cover them with a sticky mat to keep your hands or feet from slipping.
Variation: Wheel Pose against a wall
Stand a few feet away from the wall—the exact distance will depend on your flexibility. Place your feet hip-width apart or wider, and press down through your heels. Reach your arms up and alongside your ears, as if you were coming into Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), and then continue to lift up through the chest as you bend your knees and allow your upper back to bend and your arms to reach back for the wall. Let your head tilt back. You can stay here, or slowly walk your hands down further on the wall. Stay for several breaths at a place where you can comfortably breathe, then walk your hands back up the wall to come out of the pose.