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 pose 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 that use bolsters and blocks to make the pose more accessible.
Before You Backend
Before you explore these wheel 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.
Wheel Pose Variation I
Step 1: Begin by placing your bolster lengthwise, right in the center of your mat. Sit on the edge of the bolster, lie back on the bolster, and bring your head to the floor (as you would for a restorative backbend). If you have a sensitive back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. For some of us, this may be as much of a backbend as we want or need. 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: Lie on your bolster as if you were at the end of step 1, with knees bent and feet planted parallel on the floor. Place your hands palms down by your ears with fingertips pointing toward your shoulders. Draw the heads of your arm bones into your shoulder sockets, and bring your elbows closer to your ears. Then, pressing firmly into your feet—your legs and feet need to be super-active in this asana—take a little bit of your weight onto your hands, and simply lift your hips up (as you would in bridge pose). This too is a fine place to stay, rather than continuing into the full wheel. Here, you can practice lifting and lowering your hips, while continuing to make sure your elbows don't splay out to the sides: Press a little weight into your hands, inhaling as you lift your hips, and exhaling as you lower them. Repeat this a few times. To come out of the pose, roll onto your side and off the bolster, and then sit up; or tuck your chin and roll directly up to a seated position.
Wheel Pose Variation II (with Optional Full Wheel)
Step 1: For this next variation, you will need three blocks in addition to the bolster to build a platform to support you in wheel. The platform will allow you to begin a bit higher, requiring less lift to come into wheel.
Place the blocks on their shortest sides underneath the bolster, evenly spacing them so that the entire bolster is supported. If you want to add even more height, you can stack three more blocks (also on their shortest sides) under the bolster on top of the first three blocks.
As in the previous variation, sit on the edge of the bolster with your feet flat on the floor. Because the initial backbend will be deeper this time thanks to the platform, tuck your chin in toward your chest and roll down onto the bolster slowly, using your hands to help you lie all the way back; then gently lower your head to the floor. 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 relaxed. If you feel stable and comfortable, remain in wheel pose 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 bolster. When you’re ready, you can either roll carefully onto your side and off the bolster (don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be pretty!), making your way to a seated position. Or you can press your palms into the floor, tuck your chin into your chest, and roll directly up to a seated position.
Click here for a video demonstration.