A strong proponent of sustainable yoga, Amy Ippoliti is masterful at breaking poses down to their components to make them accessible and beneficial for all levels and bodies. She offered this comprehensive approach to Urdhva Dhanurasana at YJ LIVE San Diego.
Want to practice or study with Amy in person? Join her at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 19-22, 2018—YJ's big event of the year. We’ve lowered prices, developed intensives for yoga teachers, and curated popular educational tracks: Anatomy, Alignment & Sequencing; Health & Wellness; and Philosophy & Mindfulness. See what else is new and sign up now!
Urdhva Dhanurasana can be a divisive pose: it comes naturally to some yogis, whereas others love to hate it. Depending on where you happen to sit on the spinal mobility spectrum, Wheel can feel either like a piece of cake or a frustrating struggle that requires meticulous warming up before it can even be attempted. If you are more Tin Man than Gumby, it’s tempting to blame an inherent lack of mobility for trouble with Wheel, but the reality is that this pose presents its own set of challenges even for those gifted with seemingly limitless spinal extension. Ironically, naturally mobile yogis with may be unknowingly taxing their joints by relying on passive flexibility, rather than using muscular support in challenging poses like Wheel.
The Anatomy of Flexibility
When approaching any pose that challenges flexibility, it’s important to understand that range of motion is determined by a combination of compressive and tensile restrictions. Compressive limitations are related to the shape of the skeleton itself; in other words, individual bones, as well as the manner in which they interface with each other, together determine range of motion. Reaching a joint’s end range of motion usually produces a clear sense of a “hard” edge: there’s bone-on-bone compression and a feeling that the joint “just won’t go any further.” It goes without saying that it’s very unwise to force a joint past its natural, finite range of motion.
On the other hand, tensile limitations are related to the flexibility of the soft tissues. Tightness in muscles, tendons and ligaments can restrict range of motion, but in this case, the sensation is that of a “softer” edge. Unlike the set shape of our skeletons, tensile restrictions can be worked on, as long as we go about it mindfully. Understanding the difference between the two and having the wisdom to know when not to push further are both key to staying safe in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Some skeletons are happy to bend one way, but not another, so the truth is that deep backbends can (and do) look very different from one yogi to another.
Regardless of natural flexibility, one of the most important aspect of Wheel is finding the correct muscular engagements that support the pose make it beneficial. Structural limitations aside, mobility is governed by the nervous system, which grants range of motion based on whether a particular movement feels safe. This feeling of safety is created when a joint is integrated and has active support from the musculature around it. So, while we all have varying levels of intrinsic mobility, simply relying on passive flexibility for a pose like Wheel is not only unwise and counterproductive, it’s also a missed opportunity for strengthening the body.
The Mobility Required for Wheel Pose
With all of that in mind, let’s look at Urdhva Dhanurasana. This pose demands significant mobility in many areas: extension in the spine, wrists and hips, as well as full flexion in the shoulders. Again, we can’t alter the range of motion available on a skeletal level, but we can prepare the soft tissues for the specific challenges of Wheel. Opening the chest, releasing the triceps, decompressing the spine and making space in the low back will all bring ease to the pose. Additionally, focusing on muscular actions around the relevant joints will encourage the nervous system to permit greater range of motion. Here are some effective preparatory poses for a safe and deep Urdhva Dhanurasana, regardless of what that may look like for your body.
6 Steps to an All-New Wheel Pose
Jenni Tarma is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, runner and CrossFitter. She is certified in teaching Yoga For Athletes (via Sage Rountree), is a RRCA Distance Running Coach, and is currently studying with Tiffany Cruikshank for her 500hr Yoga Medicine certification. She loves to move, and believes yoga is the athlete’s key to form, function and focus!