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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.
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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
Step 1: Decompress the spine
Spending extra time setting up the correct muscular engagements for this modified Cobra is worth it: the whole spine is lengthened and decompressed in preparation for the deeper backbend of Wheel.
First, create space in the sacrum. From a prone position with the hands under the shoulders, tuck the toes and lean the whole body to the right. Engage the left leg by pressing the mound of the big toe into the floor and out to the left; you should feel the left sitting bone widen outward against the resistance of the floor. The resulting spaciousness in the left SI joint will be more of a feeling than a dramatic movement. Repeat on the other side. Come back onto your belly, and broaden the back of the pelvis by finding the widening action evenly on both sides. Maintain this action and move your tailbone down; think of doing this by moving the skeleton itself, rather than just using the glutes.
Keeping the spaciousness in the sacrum and the slight tuck in the tailbone, reach the fingertips forward, and lengthen the spine and sides of the ribcage. On an inhale, lift your chest up into a low, easy Cobra. Repeat, this time bringing the hands a few inches back toward the shoulders, but staying up on the fingertips and positioning the hands as wide as your mat. Take a couple more passes, each time bringing the hands a little further back toward the shoulders, finally ending with full Cobra.
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Step 2: Create mobility in the upper back and shoulders
Finding range of motion in the upper back and shoulder blades lets the chest open more freely, as the scapulae are able to move “out of the way” of the backbending action, so to speak. Similarly, stretching the triceps creates the length needed for the shoulders to move into full flexion.
Warrior II variation
Starting in Warrior II with the right leg forward, take the arms into Garudasana by stacking the left elbow over the right, intertwining the forearms, and possibly touching the palms together (if this isn’t available, try wrapping the fingers of the right hand around the left thumb instead). Keeping the base of the neck soft, widen the shoulder blades as you lift the elbows up and away from your face. Hold for 3–4 breaths. Unravel the arms, then take the tricep stretch: sweep the right arm up next to the right ear, bend the elbow and grab hold of it with the left hand. Anchor the feet and legs into place, inhale to lengthen upward through the right elbow, and exhale to side stretch to the left, using the left hand to draw the right elbow deeper into the stretch. Take 3–4 breaths into the right side of the ribcage, then repeat on the other side.
Step 3: Release the chest
Tight pectoral muscles are a common hindrance to Wheel, and this simple stretch effectively targets the Pectoralis Major in preparation for the required chest opening.
Begin facing a wall. Bend the right elbow and place the underside of the forearm and pinky edge of the hand against the wall; the elbow should be an inch or so above the level of the shoulder. Lift the shoulders up a little, then lightly squeeze the shoulder blades together. Keep these actions and slowly take a quarter turn (or less!) to the left, just until you feel a significant stretch in the right side of the chest. Keep in mind that the sensation should be in the pectorals, in the area below the collarbone, and not in the front of the shoulder, where it could strain the ligaments. Focus on maintaining integrity in the shoulder joint. Rather than passively leaning in for the maximum stretch, think of actively packing the arm bone into its socket. Hold for as long as you like before repeating on the other side, and consider spending a little extra time on whichever side feels more reluctant to release!
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Step 4: Get ready for extension
What’s the best way to set up for a big backbend? A series of small (well, smaller) backbends! Bridge and Bow Pose are fantastic for familiarizing yourself with the relevant engagements and gradually easing the spine into extension.
Let’s revisit the key actions of Cobra, and apply them to Bridge Pose. Start on your back with knees bent, feet hip-width apart, and with a slight arch in the low back. Soften the glutes and lengthen the tailbone, and carefully lift the hips up into Bridge. The aim is to evenly distribute the backbend along the length of the entire spine: Lift the chest up toward the chin but without letting the lumbar arch excessively.
Next, go a little deeper with Bow pose. From a prone position, bend the knees and reach the hands back for the ankles or shins (you can also use a strap if need be). Check in again with the Cobra actions: broaden the back of the pelvis, lightly press the knees into the mat for a slight posterior pelvic tilt, and lengthen the tailbone toward the backs of the knees. Keep all of these actions (yes, it’s a lot of work!) as you kick the feet into the hands and lift the chest.
Step 5: Prep the shoulders and chest
The tricep-lengthening and chest-opening benefits of Pincha Mayurasana are helpful preparation for Wheel, especially when we take the focus off balancing and hone in on these key actions instead. Here, the setup and entry into Pincha are just as important as the pose itself.
Begin on all fours, close to and facing a wall. Lower the forearms down to the floor, shoulder-width apart, and interlace your fingers. Allow the chest to drop down and draw the shoulder blades in toward the spine; relax the head and stay for a couple of breaths. You can also move the hands up over the nape of the neck if it feels good. Next, lower the forearms back to the floor, making sure the fingers are interlaced and the knuckles are fairly close to the wall. You’ll also want to tuck whichever pinky is on the bottom inside the hands for added stability. Keep the squeeze in the scapulae and the “drop” in the chest (think of creating a cleavage between the shoulder blades), tuck the toes under and press up into a modified Down Dog. Walk the feet toward the face, stacking the hips over the shoulders as you go. Carefully kick up into Pincha Mayurasana, using the wall as a support. Once steady, try gently pumping the chest away from the wall for a little extra backbend. For those on the less flexible side, this might be more of a sensation than an actual movement. This is totally fine—the idea is to investigate the range of motion available more than anything else. Stay and explore for as long as feels manageable before releasing to Child’s Pose.
Step 6: Get ready for liftoff
Time to put it all together!
Begin on your back, knees bent and feet hip-distance apart. Place the hands by the ears with the fingers pointing toward the shoulders, and hug the elbows in rather than letting them splay out (think Chaturanga arms). Find a little arch in the low back, let the glutes get heavy, then lengthen the tailbone. Carefully lift yourself to the top of the head. Take a moment here, and move the arm bones back and forth to find the mobility in the shoulders. Draw the shoulder blades in toward the spine and gather the arm bones snugly into their sockets. Check in with the legs to make sure the glutes are still unclenched and that the knees are aren’t drifting outward. Finally, press evenly into the hands and feet and lift up to Urdhva Dhanurasana. Gently pump the chest forward (as in Pincha Mayurasana), checking in with both shoulders and spine to make sure you don’t push past a manageable range of motion.
If there’s discomfort in the wrists, try placing a rolled up blanket under the heels of the hands: decreasing the extension demands in the wrists will allow the shoulders and chest to open more freely.
To come out, lower the top of the head down first, followed by the hips, maintaining a slight arch in the lumbar as you release all the way down. Pause here, before gently sweeping the knees from side to side to work out tension in the spine. Take your time carefully hugging the knees into the chest to counterpose.
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!