As a yoga teacher, I often see students struggling to grab their feet in Dhanurasana, in a quest to practice the pose the “right” way. However, this pursuit of perfection—in Bow Pose or any other asana—is outdated, and can even prove harmful.
In fact, I’d argue that varying your understanding of a pose can benefit your practice—in more ways than one. If you only achieve your asanas one way, you miss out on experiencing the different sensations that alternative (and equally valid) ways of practicing them can provide.
What you need to know about Bow Pose
Bow Pose—so named for the shape your body makes in the posture—requires equal parts strength and pliancy, just like the archer’s companion. When a bow is strung, it puts consistent pressure and load on its limbs, which allows the tool to exude immense power when an arrow is released. But when it’s unstrung, as it often is for storage, the deep bend in the bow straightens. The pressure and load on its limbs are released, and it relaxes.
The same is true in Dhanurasana. You feel the tension in your body as your hands pull the legs up, and then, when you release them, you unload the body, relaxing into a prone Savasana (Corpse Pose).
While we all admire a strung bow or the full expression of Bow Pose, few of us can actually achieve it. (Maybe as few as those who actually practice archery.)
But you can explore and appreciate your body for where it is now. Just as it’s essential for archers to understand how to string their bows, it’s important for yogis to learn how to properly engage their bodies in Bow Pose. And you can get there using imagination and your props.
A supported sequence to build to Bow Pose
Dhanurasana is a closed-chain pose, meaning your hands and feet make contact with your lower limbs to passively bring your spine into a deeper backbend. This sequence diverges from that passive movement, presenting an opportunity to recruit the muscles of your back body— including your calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae muscles (they run more or less the length of the spine on both sides), and triceps—before coming into the pose.
When you increase your awareness of the role the back body plays in backbending, you understand how you can rely a little less on forcing your body into the shape and play a little more with passive versus active spinal flexibility.
This short sequence begins with easing your spine into twists and side bends. After that, you’ll work toward two versions of Dhanurasana that channel a supple and robust bow before loosening the tension and storing your human bow in prone Savasana.
You’ll need two blocks and a blanket.
Supported single-leg spinal twist
Place your blocks to the left side of your body on the lowest or medium height. Begin in Savasana. Bend your right knee into your chest and roll to the outside of your left hip as you twist, placing your inner right knee and foot on your blocks. You can also place a folded blanket on top of the blocks to make this setup higher. Reach your right shoulder down toward the ground, focusing your twist on the thoracic spine (your middle back). Activate your left leg by reaching through your heel. Stay here for 10–20 deep breaths. To exit, roll onto your back with your right knee tucked into your chest, then release your right leg to the floor. Move your props to the right side and repeat.
Supported side-lying pose
Fold your blanket lengthwise and place it in the middle of your mat. Bring the right side of your waist to rest on the blanket with your hip and ribs on the floor. Stretch your left arm overhead, resting your head either between your ear and the floor or on a block. Straighten your legs in line with your hips and press through your heels. Lift your right arm overhead to increase the sideband. If you’d like to augment the side stretch, take one or both of the blocks underneath the blanket to an appropriate height for you. Stay here for 10–20 deep breaths, focusing on the movement of your rib cage. To exit, release the right arm and press yourself up before changing sides.
Supported Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Open up your blanket halfway or the entire length, depending on the length of your torso, and fold it 2–3 times lengthwise. This additional height will create padding for your chest and raise the floor. Have your blocks positioned about 3 inches below the end of the blanket furthest from the top of the mat. Rest the space between your hip points on the bottom edge of the blanket, followed by supporting the rest of your torso and forehead. Find your blocks, place them on the lowest height and then slide them to a position where you can straighten your arms alongside your body. Press your palms into the blocks as you curl your spine back into a Salabhasana variation. Stay here or lift the palms away from the blocks. Stay for three rounds of breath, then rest. Repeat 5 times, resting adequately between each one.
Supported Sphinx hamstring block curl
Keep your blanket under your abdomen as you come into Sphinx Pose. If the blanket makes it challenging to place the forearms on the floor, move it aside. Support yourself on one arm as you take your block and place it between your right heel and either your right buttock or the belly of your hamstring. Squeeze the block without lifting and hinging at your hips. Lift your right thigh away from the ground and hold for a breath. Repeat five times, increasing the number of breaths you take. Switch sides.
Supported Dhanurasana with extended arms
Roll your blanket lengthwise to create a sturdy support for your abdomen. Your pubic bones should float above the floor. Rest your arms down by your sides with your hands on the blocks, like supported Salabhasana. Press your hands into your blocks as you curl into a backbend. Bend your right knee while maintaining the backbend. Lift your right-hand block to connect with your right heel. Press the heel and block together before simultaneously releasing. This action is better at strengthening the back body than holding your ankle and drawing it up. Lower the right side down and then switch to the left side. Continue alternating or try bending both knees at the same time. Stay for a few breaths and then rest for as long as you need, unwinding the bow of your back and settling into a prone Savasana over your unrolled blanket.
See also: 10 “Blockasanas” to Strengthen Your Core