One day, after teaching a backbend class that included ardha dhanurasana (half bow pose) but not dhanurasana (bow pose), a student approached me and asked why I hadn’t taught the “full pose.” It was an intriguing question. Ardha means “half,” so it can be easy to deduce that ardha dhanurasana is but half of an equation. So I began to wonder: What makes one pose “full” and another, well, “less full”?
After thinking about it for days, I took the question to the mat. I set aside some time to practice going back and forth between half bow and bow. I wanted to understand and experience for myself, in my own body, what made bow “full” and half bow not.
What I discovered was that while half bow did not have anything less to offer, it did offer something different. I also found that the pose requires just as much focus and effort as dhanurasana, and that it is in fact a “full pose” in its own right.
Ardha dhanurasana is, of course, a fantastic prep for dhanurasana. But practicing it consistently on its own can also teach us a lot about our bodies.
Reaching for one foot at a time lets us compare the ease or difficulty from one side to the other, allowing us to gauge how tight the front of our body—say, our quads and psoas, or our anterior delts—feels on the left versus the right. We can also gauge whether or not the muscles on one side of the back body (such as the paraspinal muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and triceps) engage more than the other.
We might also find a greater sense of opening in the body when we aren’t struggling to clasp both feet or ankles (if dhanurasana is somewhat less accessible for us).
In my investigation of what makes this “half” pose “full,” I explored the traditional form of ardha dhanurasana as well as variations that helped me find a greater sense of balance and ease between the right and left sides of my body. I discovered what makes this pose shine on its own, and I am thrilled to share those discoveries with you.
First, let’s look at the classic version of ardha dhanurasana.
Begin in sphinx pose by lying on your belly and placing your elbows under or just slightly forward of your shoulders and your forearms parallel to the outer edges of your mat. Your legs will be extended behind you as in cobra pose.
Bend your right knee and reach your right hand back to grasp the outer edge of your right foot or ankle (you can also loop a strap over the top of your foot and hold on to the end of the strap). Focus on turning the right side of your rib cage to face forward to keep your torso squared to the front of your mat. The tendency is to twist to the right (usually in order to hold the foot), creating torque in the lower waist and back, along with an unpleasant crunching feeling there.
Press your left forearm down into the floor, reach your ribs forward, and lift your heart to find length in the front of your body.
Press your right foot back into your hand or strap, and reach the ball of your foot up toward the ceiling.
Attempt to lift your right thigh away from the floor by engaging your glutes and your hamstrings (note that in some cases this will happen and in other cases, it won’t; either way, it’s the feeling of these muscles working together that matters).
Keep your left leg engaged: Press the top of your foot down into the floor and reach back through your toes while maintaining internal rotation in your left thigh. Stay here for about five steady breaths, and then switch sides.
If you've found practicing the classic form of this pose uncomfortable, or you simply want to experience ardha dhanurasana in different ways, try the following variations. Each one is designed to help you discover symmetry through asymmetry, as well as a sense of fullness within the pose. You will need two blocks, a bolster or several blankets, a strap, and a folding chair (if you have one, a backless yoga chair works best).
One variation may allow you to grasp your foot more easily, while another may help you find more length and less tension along the spine. Find the variation that supports you the most, or incorporate all three into your practice.
1. Practice With a Bolster and Blocks If you have trouble lifting your chest off the floor, and you feel sensation mostly in your lower back, try adding blocks under your forearms and a bolster under your hips (depending on the length of your torso and the width of your bolster, your ribs and chest may also end up on the bolster). These props may help you to smooth out your backbend, alleviating pressure in your lower back.
Prop a bolster under your hip points and navel band (your pubic bone will not touch the floor), and rest your forearms on blocks placed lengthwise on their lowest setting.
Firm your shoulder blades against your back. Press your forearms into the blocks and imagine drawing them toward the bolster as you reach your ribs forward. This helps to fire the erector spinae (spinal muscles) while opening the front of the body (specifically the shoulders, chest, and abdomen).
Spiral your inner thighs up toward the ceiling to prevent your legs from externally rotating, which can cause too much compression in your lower back.
Then reach back with your right hand and (with or without a strap) take hold of the outside of your right foot or ankle. If reaching for the foot or ankle is difficult, try turning your left hand in and resting it on your right hand’s block (as pictured below).
Notice if both sides of your abdomen are evenly placed on the bolster, and work to turn your rib cage forward. Press your right foot into your hand and hold here for five to eight breaths, and then switch sides.
2. Practice at the Wall Stand a few inches away from a wall, and place your forearms on the wall as if you were doing sphinx pose.
Press into your forearms as you shift your weight into your left foot, bend your right knee, and grab hold of the outside of your right foot or ankle.
Draw your right inner thigh toward the left (which will keep your foot from sticking out to the side), and simultaneously engage your low abs so that you don’t overarch your lower back.
Roll the right side of your rib cage forward as you parallel your shoulders to the wall. Press your foot back into your hand as you widen across your collarbones and lift your sternum. Hold for five to eight breaths, and then switch sides.
3. Practice With a Chair I learned this variation of ardha dhanurasana from senior intermediate Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko, and it’s now my favorite way to practice this pose. By leaning my back against a chair, I find the support I need to deepen my backbend and I achieve more opening through my front body than I do in the previous variations.
If you have a backless chair, place a bolster on the chair seat and slide it partially through the back of the chair so that the bolster is secured (as shown in the photo below). Otherwise, use a stack of blankets or a meditation cushion on the chair seat, and drape a blanket over the back of the chair for extra support.
Facing away from the chair back, lie down on the bolster on your left side (so that the bolster supports your hips). Let your left hand float to the floor. Lift up your legs so that your entire body is pretty much parallel to the floor.
Find that sweet spot where your weight is evenly balanced between your legs and your torso. (This may involve shifting backward or forward on the bolster—play around with it!)
Flex your feet and reach through your heels to keep the right side of your body engaged.
Let your upper body curve around the chair back and your left forearm rest on the floor or a block. Reach your right arm alongside your head. (If you feel like you’re going to crash on your head if you lift your right hand off the floor, slide down the bolster toward the direction that your feet are pointing to allow your legs to provide better counterbalance.)
Bend your right knee and circle your right hand around the chair back to catch hold of your right foot or ankle. The back of your body will be supported by the back of the chair. Press your foot into your hand as you feel the physical and energetic union of your upper and lower body while creating a strong yet supple arc through your torso. Stay here for five to ten breaths, and then switch sides.
To come out of the pose, release your foot and stretch your right leg alongside the left. Come back onto your left hand, placing it on the floor or block. Press down into your hand, and bring your feet to the floor, shifting your weight into your legs. Continue to press yourself up, bringing your hands onto the chair until you can sit on the bolster or stand up slowly.
Practicing ardha dhanurasana as a peak pose has transformed the way I practice and think.
We too often tell ourselves that we aren’t complete as we are, and that we have not yet reached our fullest potential. We proceed in the belief that we cannot be our best selves until we’ve achieved our fullest expression. But what makes one version of ourselves more full and another less full—one version best, and another less than best?
Ardha dhanurasana teaches me that I am full and complete right now, even as l continue to learn and grow. Apply this approach of fullness to each pose—whether it’s half or not—along with each breath and each step you take in life, and notice how that makes even your actions feel full and complete.
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