Hi, I am Sarah Ezrin, and I am addicted to deep back bending.
For years, I couldn’t quit Urdhva Dhanurasana, commonly known as Wheel or Upward Facing Bow. I was hooked from my very first yoga class. No backbend could compete with pressing my arms and legs straight while opening my chest to the heavens.
When I started standing up and dropping back from the pose, all bets were off. I would do the tick-tock-like sequence at the end of each practice and buzz, as if I’d downed an entire pot of coffee. It was thrilling.
The signs of addiction were there since I first started practicing. First, I was powerless. I had to do Urdhva Dhanurasana in order to feel complete. It didn’t matter if I did any other backbends; nothing else was able to satisfy me.
Next, I abused the pose. In her book, Mind Body Spirit, master teacher Donna Farhi says that backbends are “powerful healers, and like all strong medicine, they have the potential to be injurious if practiced without discretion.” I definitely over-dosed on my medicine.
Finally, what I realize now is that I put my body at risk for the sake of a shape. Wheel was easy for me at first, because I could come into it by literally dislocating my arms from their socket. (Are you squirming? Chances are you do the same thing. In fact, most of us do.) Do this for a few years and it may not make a difference; continue doing this decade after decade and your shoulders will likely pay the price.
After years of abusing deep backbends, I have come to a new appreciation for the entire spectrum of this family of postures. I finally understand the importance of each variation of backbends, and understand that “going deeper” is not synonymous with overexertion. In fact, what I now know to be true is that in yoga, “going deeper” means being more mindful, more kind, and often doing less.
Urdhva Dhanurasana is not the be all and end all of backbends. In fact, it is only the beginning. There are a number of other backbends that are even healthier for most bodies. If you’re like me, it’s OK to hold a special place in your heart for Urdhva Danurasana. But get to ready to have your world—and your heart—blasted wide open with these 7 amazing alternatives to Wheel Pose.
7 Best Mild Backbends
Start with your feet hip-width distance apart. Interlace your hands behind your back or hold a strap if your shoulders are tight. Ground into all four corners of your feet. Press your top thighs back as you release your sit bones down to the floor. On an inhalation, lift your chest up and on an exhalation, begin to arc backwards, as if you could reach your knuckles to the floor behind you. Keep a tone in your low belly by gently lifting your front hip bones to your front ribs. Your chest should be broad and lifted; your shoulder blades should support the opening of your chest. If it is OK on your neck, look up to the ceiling. Stay here for 10 deep breaths. Come out on an inhalation by grounding into your feet and pressing your thighs back. Exhale and pause in Tadasana.
Melting Heart Pose (Anahatasana), variation
Stand directly at a wall until your toes are touching it. Inhale your arms overhead, with the arms shoulder-width distance apart, and place your palms flat onto the wall. Step back two to three feet (depending on your height). Bend at your hips, reaching your bum away from the wall to the center of the room. Walk your feet back until your hips align over your heels. Keeping a little more weight toward your knuckles, begin to melt your heart toward the floor. Resist dumping into your shoulders by letting your upper arms flare out, as this will compress the neck and actually avoids the chest opening. Instead, wrap your outer upper arms (your triceps) downward and resist your forearms from the ground. Then take your chest to the floor and lift your front ribs away from the floor. By working the counter actions of the arms and lower ribs resisting the floor, it helps target your heart space more accurately. Breathe here for 10 breaths. When it is time to come out, lift your head and slowly walk back to the wall. Repeat once more.
Locust (Salabhasana), variation
Start laying down with your tummy on the floor. Stretch your arms out in front of you as wide as your shoulders. Come up to your fingertips, lifting your forearms away from the floor. Keep your outer upper arms hugging in toward your ears and separate your legs and feet as wide as your hips, curling the toes under. Lift your thighs up to the ceiling as you gently press your pubic bone into the floor to lengthen your low back. On each inhalation, pull your fingertips against the floor to reach your chest forward while taking your heels toward the back of the room. Lift your head while continuing to firm your upper arms in toward your ears. On each exhalation, keep a light tone in your low belly by lengthening your low back. Stay here for 10 full breaths, then lower down on an exhalation and rest before repeating two more times for a total of three rounds. When you’re done, press up to plank for a few breaths as a transition.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), variation
Contrary to popular belief, Bridge Pose is not just some stopover to Wheel. It is a strong backbend in its own right, teaching us the power of the legs and their important part in chest opening. Start on your back with your feet hips-width distance apart and your knees aligned above your ankles. On an inhalation, lift your hips up by lengthening your tailbone to your knees. Keep your inner thighs releasing to the floor and roll your arms underneath you until the pinky edge of our hand and outer wrist are karate chopping into the floor. Imagine you are holding a large beach ball underneath you. Drive your outer shoulders into the floor to help widen your chest and keep your chin level to your chest. The back of your head should very gently press into the floor. This will help the heart swell even more. Hold for 10 full breaths. Come down on an exhalation, lowering one vertebra at a time to the floor. Pause and repeat two more times.
Reverse Table (Purvottanasana)
Start sitting on your mat with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your hands next to you, slightly behind your hips, fingertips pointing forward. On an inhalation, press into your hands to lift your back body away from the floor. Straighten your legs and point your toes toward the floor. If straightening your legs is not accessible, bend your knees. Keep your hands pressing and your arms firming. You may gaze at your belly button or if your chest feels well-lifted and you do not have neck issues, release your head back and look toward the back wall. Stay here for 8 full breaths. Come down on an exhalation, slowly lowering to your bum. Sit upright for a few breaths before moving on.
Bow Pose (Padangusthasa Dhanurasana), variation
Make a small loop with a strap and tether it around your ankles. Keep the tail end over your right shoulder and come lay on your belly. Bend your elbows and your knees and walk your hands “down” the strap (toward the rear of your mat) until it feels taught. Pause here and lengthen out of your back by reaching your tail bone strongly toward your heels. On an inhalation, lift your upper body and inner legs from the floor. Make your way further down the strap as if you could one day grab your heels. Your arms will straighten; allow them to straighten. Vigorously lift your legs from your thighs, keeping your pubic bone connected to the floor. Hold 8-10 full breaths. (We will do 3 full rounds, so do less on the first one.) To release, loosen the hold on the strap and slowly lower to the floor, one rib at a time. Repeat two more times (total of 3 rounds). When complete, windshield-wiper your legs to release your low back.
Supported Fish (Matsyendrasana), variation
Set up two blocks in an upside-down T-shape, with the first block on the medium setting and wide and the top block on the tallest setting. Sit on the floor in front of the blocks and lay back so that both shoulder blades are flat against the first block, and the second block supports the base of your skull. Your legs can be straight, or, if your low back is tender, bend your knees. Start here for a good 10-15 breaths with your arms wide to the sides and your elbows bent. This is an excellent chest opener. Next, reach your arms above your chest to the ceiling, with your palms facing in. On an inhalation, slowly take your arms overhead. Like many of the previous shapes, try to keep your front ribs from flaring. (Your ribs act as a brake, preventing your arms from going too far, which would lose the stretch.) This pose can be done dynamically, inhaling your arms overhead and exhaling them back to chest level a few times. You can also simply hold your arms overhead for 20 breaths. Play with both to see which is right for you. When you are ready to come out, widen your arms to your sides and once again rest in the restorative fish shape. Bend your knees, placing your feet on the floor, and roll to your right, laying on your right arm for a few moments. Use your left hand to press up to sitting, lifting your head last. You may want to do a gentle seated twist with crossed legs afterward this pose to release your low back.