Backbends are exhilarating and so freeing in the body and Urdhva Dhanurasanam (or wheel pose) is no exception! This pose works deeply into the body opening up the heart centre and fully stretches the front of the body. Wheel pose is great for moving through stagnant energy and can help to shift mental blocks, lift our mood and make us feel more energised in the body and mind.
Personally, I’ve always loved backbends and I love the feeling of freedom, opening up and exhilaration they can draw up. Backbending has always been naturally easier and more accessible for me – but fold me over in the other direction with a forward fold and it’s a different story entirely!
If backbends aren’t a natural inclination, it can take some time to work up into full wheel pose safely. Whether or not you find backbending easy will depend on your body’s anatomy, your day-to-day posture, and whether or not you practice spine mobility regularly.
Backbends involve more than just the spine, however, there are many components and muscles that can be involved in any backbending posture.
Here are a few poses that can help you work up into wheel pose as well as some tips on how to safely come up into the full posture.
Down dog is a fundamental pose used as a basis for many yoga styles. While downward dog isn’t a backbend, it can be extremely helpful to practise this pose regularly when working towards full wheel posture. This might not be apparent at first, so allow me to explain.
In wheel posture we want to externally rotate the shoulders i.e. we want the elbows to be pointing backwards – not out to the side which is internal rotation. In downward dog we focus on creating space between the shoulder blades and the upper arms should be rotating more towards the floor. This movement helps to engage shoulder extenders, such as the latissimus dorsi. This is the very same shoulder extender lengthening that we are after in a backbend such as urdhva dhanurasana. Working towards lengthening these shoulder extenders can help with shoulder restriction in wheel posture.
When it comes to back bending postures sometimes it is useful to think of the posture as front opening rather than a back bending movement. In urdhva dhanurasana especially this posture can be seen as a full frontal body opening that works deeply into the hips, quadriceps, arms and shoulders.
Full wheel posture can feel restrictive if the muscles and tissues in the front of the body aren’t as flexible. Particularly, the hip flexors play an important role in how high we are able to get the hips in this posture. When the hips are restricted it can result in the pelvis sitting low and usually the knees will have to bend to compensate.
The knees don’t need to be straight in wheel pose – in fact, having softer knees will often prevent compression in the lower back. Having tight hip flexors and the resulting deeper bend in the knees can also have implications up into the shoulder and wrists.
Essentially, rather than the torso being balanced equally between the hands and feet tight hip flexors may result in the torso leaning forwards towards the feet. This, in turn, can result in a sharper angle from the wrists pointing in the direction of the feet. Eventually this can result in wrist pain due to compression of the wrist joint.
Practising low crescent lunges will help to open up the hips in preparation for urdhva dhanurasana. Low lunges can work deeply into the hip flexors and can easily be incorporated into many yoga flow routines. Be sure to pad beneath the knee for extra protection if you’re holding this posture for several rounds of breath!
In my own practice, I always, always practice bridge posture before doing full wheel. I find bridge to be extremely beneficial for opening up the back and I always bring my awareness to drawing my inner thighs inwards before going into wheel.
Often in wheel the knees can point outwards which can create pinching in the lower back. Sometimes this is caused by over-contraction of the glutes. While gluteal contraction is the sort of movement we would want to see in a backbend like urdva dhanurasana over-contracting of the gluteus maximus can result in the knees pointing outwards.
Engaging the adductors is a simple way to remedy this. Engaging the adductors will help to prevent the external rotation of the gluteus maximus (as well as any abductors that are contributing to the knees pointing outwards!).
If you are tight in the hips this can be another cause for the knees to point outwards. The tighter the hip flexors are the more the glutes need to work to help extend the hips – resulting in that characteristic pattern of outwardly turned knees!
As with bridge, camel posture is another way to feel into and extend the quadriceps. Camel also helps to engage more with the feeling of opening up through the heart centre and lengthening the neck. Try to keep the hips where the are as you extend backwards to get the maximum stretch in your quadriceps – this will be key for when you come up into full wheel pose!
If you’re looking for more lift in your back bends bow pose is the place to go! In dhanurasana, the contact and lifting sensation between the hands and feet gives you the ability to take your back bending to a deeper place. The dynamic push and pull feeling of this pose creates that characteristic sensation of rocking backwards onto your pubic bone. With the hands holding the ankles we are able to increase the extension of our hips allowing us to go deeper into the backbend. This can also work deeply into the quads which is extremely beneficial for wheel pose.
Like downward facing dog, upward dog is a key component of many yoga styles and also comes into play in most sun salutations. Often, upward dog is the very first backbend we come into contact with when we begin our yoga journey – and I encourage you not to overlook this fundamental pose! It offers the same benefits as many backbends: they lower stress and anxiety, they open the body up to diaphragmatic breathing helping to increase oxygen levels, they stretch the abdominal muscles, help improve posture, and alleviate neck and back pain.
Often, we’ll go through a typical yoga practice doing multiple upward facing dogs, so it’s important to get your alignment right! Roll the shoulders away from the ears, be sure you aren’t locking out the elbows, and make sure the heels aren’t rolling out to the side. To take the pose deeper try lifting the knees off the floor but, if you feel any pinching in the lower back, it’s a sign that you back off a little.
Following an intense pose such as urdhva dhanurasana, I like to take an easy child’s pose, forward fold, and hugging the knees into the chest. Urdhva dhanurasana is a very active, engaging and exciting pose so it is nice to balance this out with something more passive.
Whenever I do a forward fold straight after wheel, I always deeply (and I mean deeply!) bend my knees. In these counter poses the key for me isn’t how far I can get into the pose, it’s about how much I can lengthen my back. Usually, I bend my knees to support my torso and let my head rest on my knees – the opposite spinal position to what it was in wheel!
Don’t underestimate the importance of counter poses! They help create balance and alignment in the body.
Top Tips to Come Up Into Wheel Pose:
· Above all, make sure you’re fully warmed up before attempting this pose! Not only will this protect your body, it will also allow you to explore it in more depth
· Push into the feet more – this helps put more pressure into the latissimus and other shoulder extenders to prevent the elbows from pointing outwards
· Imagine there is a block between your thighs – this will help to encourage your
· Make sure the palms of your hands are flat on the floor – if this is tricky try placing blocks against the wall for your hands to sit on
· Don’t forget those all-important counter poses after you’ve tried wheel pose! Try to do at least one variation of a forward fold after this pose