One of my favorite architects is Antonio Gaudí, and every time I practice bridge pose I’m reminded of his quote: “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners.”
Or in our case as humans whose bodies are made up of curves, bridge pose (setu bandhasana)—and all of our poses—should, generally speaking, not have straight lines or sharp corners. Yet we often strive in our practice to find angled shapes that don’t actually exist. I have strong bones but I definitely don’t have any perfectly straight ones.
When I visited Barcelona in 2015, I was inspired by Gaudí’s immense mosaic work in Park Guell, where broken, sharp-edged tiles are transformed into smooth, curved terraces, and the Casa Mila, where the undulating house front is adorned with columns that resemble tree roots. As a yoga teacher, I aim to view a pose such as bridge with a similar sense of reverence: to see it as an expression of an individual’s unique structure, revealing its otherwise obscured artistry, in essence, its beauty.
I’m not looking for uniform bodies lined up as archways but rather the efficacy of the bridge. Is it steady? Is it strong? Is it pliable? The list goes on.
In terms of bridge’s benefits, opening the front of the body is frequently emphasized, but the pose’s stimulation of the back body is masterful and efficient and often overlooked. In this article, I’ll show you how adding some props to the mix can invigorate your backbend and attract the lively awareness in the back body it justly deserves, helping you to make the most of your unique expression of bridge.
1. Theraband Bridge
Using the theraband creates an added dynamic of external resistance because there is an actual object to press the body into, thus creating more proprioception and motor neuron feedback.
Benefits of this practice: Activates the stabilizing muscles of the hips, enlivens the muscles of the arms, chest, and back body, and brings awareness to the foundational press of the feet. What you’ll need: Two therabands of varying resistances, one block
Start on your back with your knees bent and your ankles aligned below your knees. Place one theraband around your upper thighs (choose a resistance that is appropriate for your needs—not too easy to push against and not impossible to move). Slip the second theraband around the middle of your forearms. Again, choose a resistance that you can work with—one that provides a moderate challenge and allows your legs and arms to work in concert.
Lift your hips and arms up simultaneously. You can vary your arm position with the arms reaching up toward the ceiling or overhead. Pause and press out against the bands with your arms and legs.
Though the whole body is stimulated, you’ll mostly feel the engagement across your upper back, outer arms, outer hips, and the back of your hips. Hold for about ten seconds and then lower back down. Repeat this five to eight more times.
Take this a step further and place a block between your feet at its lowest vertical setting. Lift your hips and arms up toward the ceiling as in the previous variation and press out into the bands. Keep your hips steady as you lift your left foot away from the ground (it does not have to lift very high). Hover your foot for up to ten seconds and then lower it back to the floor and change sides.
Our feet tend to move closer together when we lift and lower them, so the block helps you to place your foot back into the same spot. Our feet also become livelier as they sense the presence of the block. Do five to eight times total on each side.
2. Elevated Bridge
Benefits: Recruits the hamstrings and changes the angle of the pose, which can help some people find more leverage to lift their hips.
What you’ll need: A chair (any chair will do, it doesn’t need to be a backless yoga chair) and a mat Bridge pose has the possibility of inspiring the hamstrings to shine in all their physical and architectural glory. One way to instantaneously bring awareness to the role your hamstrings play is to elevate your feet. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to using a folding chair but you can certainly swap in blocks, a bolster, a couch, a wall, and so forth. Place your chair upright with all four legs on your mat and the seat of the chair facing you. Lie on your back and place your heels on the seat of the chair (soles of the feet lifted). Bring your hips slightly behind your knees so that when you root your heels into the seat you feel a downward press through your heels and the chair slightly pulling toward you, rather than away from you. Grip onto the sides of your mat and roll your shoulders back a bit to encourage your chest to broaden. Lift your hips up and immediately observe the sensations in your hamstrings. Stay for about five breaths, then release.
3. Sliding Bridge
Benefits: This variation works the legs dynamically and isometrically as you concentrically and eccentrically contract the hamstrings. What you’ll need: A folded blanket or towel Lie down on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on your blanket. If you are lying on a mat, make sure your feet and blanket are off of the mat. Start with your knees stacked above your ankles like the first bridge variation. Keep your arms by your sides with your palms down or lift them toward the ceiling to make it more challenging. Press into your feet and lift your hips up.
You may notice that your feet want to slide forward and your hamstrings try to brake that action. Hold your bridge here for a few breaths. Then slide your feet forward an inch, and from that lengthened position, contract the hamstrings to pull the heels back an inch. Continue to progressively elongate the legs and return the legs to the starting position. Do this three to eight times and then rest.
This is challenging. If it’s too much, regress the bridge by placing the blanket under only one foot and working with one leg at a time. Keep your weight evenly pressing down into both heels to avoid leaning to the side without the blanket. Press the heel that’s on the blanket down and forward, lengthening the leg a little bit, and then pull the leg back into a bent position. Do this a few times progressively, rest, and then change sides using the same method. Notice the differences between the two sides.
Invigorating your bridge can mean the difference between struggling with the pose and practicing it with enthusiasm. Using props in your bridge pose heightens your proprioception, enlivens the back of your body, and offers a new experience of a pose that may have become rote in your practice.
And as you move away from the aesthetic idea of straight lines and sharp edges, you are free to feel how your body responds to these external tools. Allow yourself to be with the experience of these propped versions of bridge and thrive in the exploration of your inner architecture.
Photography: Andrea Killam