Reinventing the Wheel: Tips for Your Best Urdhva Dhanurasana Yet

October 10, 2016    BY Amber Burke
Reinventing the Wheel

Chakrasana or wheel pose, also known as urdhva dhanurasana or upward bow pose, is a backbend that strengthens the arms and legs and stretches the hip flexors and shoulders. If you’ve felt tired after your asana practice (despite savasana), it might be that you could use a wheel (or two or three). Chakrasana is an exhilarating pose, perhaps due either to the effort it requires or to the fresh view it provides—that of the world behind you, turned upside down.

It’s tempting to rush into wheel, as we do into other exhilarating experiences: after all, if we pause before jumping out of the plane, we think we might lose heart and fail to make our skydive. But since wheel’s maximum benefits and safety depend on the parachute of healthy alignment, instead of throwing yourself heedlessly into the pose, take your time and follow the steps below. This will help you move into it with a long spine, a solid base of support, and properly placed shoulders.

Since wheel’s maximum benefits and safety depend on the parachute of healthy alignment, instead of throwing yourself heedlessly into the pose, take your time and follow the steps below.

A caveat: Wheel isn’t right for everyone. Because of its demands on the shoulders, shoulder injuries may make it wise to avoid this pose. It also requires a high degree of wrist extension, so you may want to skip or modify the pose if you have limited wrist mobility.

One way to make the pose more wrist-friendly is to use a wall and two blocks. Lie on your back on the mat, with the crown of your head skimming the wall. Arrange the blocks on either side of your ears, tilting them against the wall. Then place your hands flat on the blocks, with your fingers pointing down toward your shoulders. (If the blocks slip, try pulling your sticky mat up the wall behind the blocks to help hold them in place.) Follow the steps below to lift up from there.

Prepare for wheel with low lunges or virabhadrasana 1 (warrior 1) to stretch the hip flexors of the back leg. Use gomukhasana (cow face) arms or dolphin pose to open up the shoulders. Warm up your spine with twists like parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle) and side bends like reverse warrior, then moving toward backbending with setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge).

1. Lying on your back, step your heels as close as possible to your sitting bones (feet too far forward will make it hard to lift up!), with your feet hip-distance apart and parallel to each other. Your thighs should also be parallel to each other, with your knees aiming toward your second or your third toes.

2. Arrange your spine in its elongated neutral position, tipping your butt back into the floor until your lower back curves gently away from the mat, lengthening the crown of your head and your tailbone away from each other.  

3. Place your hands alongside your ears, with your wrists parallel to the back of the mat and fingers pointing toward your shoulders. Hug your upper arms toward each other until they are parallel, your elbows pointing straight back. (If your elbows or thighs flare to the sides as you proceed, try looping your upper arms or thighs with a strap on your next attempt.)

4. To avoid rounding your shoulders, a position in which they do not have the full support of your rotator cuff muscles, move them up toward your ears and down toward the mat; then press your shoulder blades into your back, encouraging the chest to expand and lift.  

5. Press your hands and feet down (especially the bases of the index fingers and the bases of the big toes), and lift up onto the crown of your head. At this midpoint—a stage you may need to repeat for some weeks or months (holding for several breaths each time) before you can lift all the way up while maintaining healthy alignment—make sure that you continue to root your feet into the earth and point your knees forward, also rooting down with the hands and pointing the elbows back. Continue moving your shoulders up toward your ears and toward your back, while pressing your shoulder blades into your back to help you broaden across your chest and move your heart toward the space above your elbows.

6. To lift your head, press down even more into your hands and feet, straightening your arms and bringing your legs slightly closer to straight. Hold for several breaths, maintaining the length in your spine by reaching both the tailbone and the crown of the head toward the floor and away from each other, envisioning the canopy of a parachute lifted by the air beneath it to create a smooth, gradual curve. Reground through your feet and hands, continuing to move your thighs and upper arms into parallel tracks, and bringing your shoulders toward your ears and then your back, and pressing your shoulder blades securely against your back to boost your heart.

7. When you’re ready to come down, avoid a crash-landing by continuing to press down through your feet and hands, while maintaining the alignment of your thighs, upper arms, and shoulders during your descent. Tuck your chin to your chest, reach back through the crown of your head, and lower slowly, moving toward the back of the mat on your way down, in the direction the crown of your head is pointing, so that when you land your hands will be in line with your ears, just as they were when you began.

Because nothing prepares you for wheel like wheel, consider repeating the pose. On a first pass, you may stay just three or four breaths. But aim to lengthen your hold with each repetition, so that by your third attempt at wheel, you’re lingering for eight to ten breaths—long enough to observe your inner sensations and take in the view from aloft.

Once you’ve landed for good, take a moment to notice the after-effects of wheel: the beating of your heart, the openness of your lungs, perhaps even a welcome sense of giddiness. Then take one bent knee at a time across your body for a gentle twist before moving on.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>

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