The ancient masters saw the body as a bridge to the infinite. Their exploration of how it can be used to access Spirit’s sublime beauty and power is what we know today as hatha yoga. The approach of these masters was based on two key insights: all the forces of nature are contained in our physical form, and fulfillment—both material and spiritual—follows effortlessly as we develop mastery over these forces within the body.
The ancient masters saw the body as a bridge to the infinite.
We often judge our practice by what our body can or can’t do: the number of sun salutations, how deep we are in a pose, how long we can hold it, even which cross-legged seat we use for meditation. None of these are true barometers of practice. While the body is indeed where the journey of yoga begins for many of us, perfection of the body is not the goal. In yoga your body is a means, not the end.
I am often asked how to measure the quality of a yoga practice. “How do I know that the practice I am doing is the best one for me?” The answer: by its effect. The quality of your practice is ultimately measured by its effect on the quality of your life. In other words, mastery in yoga is mastery of life.
Urdhva dhanurasana, like all poses, benefits our body, mind, energetic systems, and emotions in unique ways. By encapsulating the essence of backbending, the pose propels us toward the ultimate embodiment of yoga: fearlessness and joy.
Sukha, the Sanskrit term for ease, happiness, or pleasure, literally means “good space.” The masters tell us we suffer (duhkha) because “stuff” overshadows the inherent goodness of our inner space. It settles between cells, organs, vertebrae, along medians, and in our fields of perception. The glory of backbends is their ability to disperse this “stuff,” thus revealing our natural state of ease.
Urdhva dhanurasana increases the vital force around the heart (pran), as well as the distributive force (vyana) throughout the body, thus increasing the breadth of courage and awareness. The pose stimulates both mind and body—the net result is exultation, awakening radiance, delight, and compassion.
This pose is the culmination of backbends, and so is beyond the reach of many students. Those who can do it often experience pain or harm their lower back or shoulders. Thus, the challenge is to move toward accomplishing the pose safely and effectively.
This pose is the culmination of backbends.
The principles of sequencing (vinyasa krama) require us to systematically prepare the body for the most challenging pose in a practice (the apex). Poses that prepare us for the apex have a similar physical, mental, and energetic action, but are simpler and more accessible. Methodical sequencing has four steps: First, identify the apex. Then analyze the focal points—the areas of the body most involved—in terms of flexibility, stability, and correct actions. Next, choose the appropriate preparatory poses, and, finally, place them in order.
The focal points for urdhva dhanurasana include flexibility along the front body, specifically in the quadriceps, hip flexors, intercostal muscles, shoulders, wrists; and strength and stability in the sacrum, arms, shoulders, wrists. Correct actions include internal rotation of thighs, upper arms, and the engagement of the hamstrings.
The postures pictured here address many of these focal points. I consistently use them (or variations) to prepare students for deep backbends. They should be part of a complete practice that includes sun salutations, standing postures, arm strengthening, and counterposes.
Asana practice enhances physical well-being, but its greatest effect is on the mind and pranic (energy) body. Upward-facing bow and the postures that build toward it inspire us to reach for greatness and increase our capacity and passion for life.
1. Chair Pose (utkatasana) is an excellent preparation for backbending. It strengthens the lower back, opens the chest and shoulders, and establishes the correct action to stabilize the sacrum: tailbone draws into the body (pelvic tilt), while upper arms externally rotate and draw down into the shoulder sockets.
Hint: On inhale, lift chest and collarbones. On exhale, tailbone tilts toward the heels.
2.Side-Angle Pose(parshvakonasana) is a dynamic stretch for the intercostals and shoulders.
Hint: Stretch the back body and front body equally. Back leg muscles engage, draw tailbone into the body, expand the kidneys.
3. Warrior I Variation (virabhadrasana I) builds on the pelvic tilt of chair pose by deepening the opening of the chest. It dynamically stretches the hip flexors and quadriceps.
Hint: Inhale, lift collarbones. Exhale, expand and flatten lumbar spine, tailbone toward the front heel. Powerfully, internally rotate the back thigh.
4. Cobra Variation (bhujangasana) deepens the lumbar curve, engages lower abdominal lift, promotes expansion of intercostals and lengthening of the upper spine.
Hint: Keep the legs active: shins in, inner thighs engaged, and spiral toward the ceiling. Arm draws down into the shoulder socket. Exhale, navel toward spine.
5. Bow (dhanurasana) enlivens the action of the legs, chest, and pelvis. Its similarity to urdhva dhanurasana (in action and shape) make it an ideal preparation because its action and even its shape are practically identical to the apex pose, but it is more accessible.
Hint: Draw the tailbone through the thighs toward the floor.
6. One-Legged Camel (ekapada ushtrasana) deepens the action of warrior I, in particular deepening the release for front thighs and pelvis.
Hint: Engage the inner thigh by lifting and contracting the muscle toward the femur. Maintain the internal rotation on the back leg. Lift lower abdomen and collarbones. The front knee is over the heel.