How can you safely work on backbends?

Wheel pose—otherwise known as urdhva dhanurasana, or “upward bow”—is often inaccessible to many people. It requires a lot of lower and upper body strength, substantial warm-up, and tons of concentration.

If wheel feels difficult for you because of a lack of shoulder or leg strength—or because of tightness in your hips, quads, or shoulders—try the variations below using the yoga wheel.

Before You Backend

Before you explore these variations (or any wheel variations), take a moment to consider both the best time to do them and how to prepare your body. Teachers often save wheel pose for the end of class in order to first allow students sufficient warm-up time. By then, however, we may be tired and less able to give wheel the focus it needs. A good compromise is to place urdhva dhanurasana near the middle of your personal practice or class sequence, after plenty of preparatory poses that open the hips, quads, and shoulders.

Variation I

Step 1: Begin by placing you’re the yoga wheel on to your mid back. Lengthen through your side body, bring your chin and your throat back and soften your shoulder blades towards the wheel. With every exhale let the tip of your shoulder blades sink onto the yoga wheel. Draw the lower rip cage in.

Roll the wheel in between your shoulder blades closer towards your neck so you can place the back of your head on top of the yoga wheel to get a better support for your neck muscles. Lift your hips by engaging your feet and relaxing the glut muscles. Lengthen your spine into both direction and grab onto the outside edges of your wheel. Draw your elbows closer to your ears and bring the whole shoulder blade back on to your back. Slowly start rolling back and fourth and bring your elbows and forearms closer to the floor. Move mindfully and make sure that you are not over-efforting in this position. This position is a particularly lovely option for those who may not have the shoulder strength to press up into wheel pose, or who have wrist injuries for which wheel is contraindicated. Staying here will still provide a backbend and some great shoulder opening.

Tip: Remember that whenever you’re doing any type of backbend, it’s very important to support your lower spine by engaging mula bandha, a lifting and squeezing of the pelvic floor, before you move into the backbend.

Step 2: Lift your hips, knees bent and feet planted parallel on the floor and bring the yoga wheel onto your sacrum or a little bit higher. This depends on where you feel more comfortable with it. This too is a fine place to stay, rather than continuing into the full wheel. Here, you can practice lifting your hips, while continuing to make sure your shoulders are on to your back and you lift your chin slightly to avoid presser on the neck. To come out of the pose, come on to your tip toes and lift your hips or lift your legs towards the sailing then lift your hips and remove the yoga wheel with a momentum.  

Variation II (with Optional Full Wheel)


Step 1: Place the yoga wheel in between your shoulder blades. Keeb your chin and your throat back and avoid to let the head hang loosely on your neck. Draw your pelvic floor in and up to engage mula bandha, and settle the heads of your arm bones back into their sockets to open your chest and shoulders.


Step 2: Now plant your palms by your ears, with the fingertips pointing down toward your shoulders. You may find it stabilizing to walk your feet out a little wider than hip distance. Make sure to keep your feet parallel. Because the feet tend to externally rotate (i.e., the heels turn in and the toes out) when the legs are in this position, you may need to turn your heels out and your toes in to make your feet parallel.


Having used the power of your legs to bring you into position, inhale as you lift up your hips (again, as you would for bridge pose), and then exhale as you lower them. Practice lifting and lowering your hips a few times, remembering that your legs ideally do the majority of the work in this pose.


Step 3: If you feel ready to come up into urdhva dhanurasana, on an inhalation, first lift your hips and then straighten your arms to press all the way up. While in wheel, root down through your legs and press your chest back through your arms, keeping your head and neck active. If you feel stable and comfortable, remain in wheel for a few breaths.


To come out of the pose, tuck your chin toward your chest and then bend your elbows to lower yourself back down slowly to the yoga wheel. When you’re ready, you can either roll carefully forward an bring you buttocks down and relax.



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