Urdhva dhanurasana, or upward bow pose (also known as wheel), is a deep backbend requiring lots of strength and mobility. It also asks your body to move in ways quite different from typical daily movement patterns: lying on the ground on your back, pushing into your hands and feet to lift your body off the floor and into a backbend—and then looking at the world from that inverted vantage point.
At times, it may seem like the odds are stacked against us when we’re learning and practicing this pose. Pushing up into urdhva dhanurasana is hard, and there is no alternative other than dropping back into it; but that entails a whole new degree of difficulty, and often a few more years of practice. One way I’ve found to make this pose more accessible is with a layering system of bolsters, blankets, and blocks.
I like to stack myriad bolsters and blankets on top of one another to raise up the ground and facilitate the experience of wheel. I also use blocks to decrease the angle of wrist extension. Using props enables my students not only to learn a new skill (pressing up), which may have been inaccessible to them, but also to get curious and ask themselves how this method is different from pressing up directly from the floor.
Grokking the mechanics of pushing up is difficult, and even more so when attempting to push all the way up from the ground. Practicing pushing up on a smaller scale will make doing so from the floor easier (eventually), because the mechanics will have become ingrained for students and they will have built stamina along the way. By using props to “raise the floor,” you can make the floor as high as you need to at first, and gradually remove the props over time—thereby “lowering the floor” and increasing the effort needed to get into the pose.
Make sure to warm up adequately for urdhva dhanurasana. Focus on strengthening the back body, particularly the hamstrings, buttocks, spinal muscles, and external rotators of the upper arms. Incorporate quad and hip flexor stretches such as lunges, twists, side-bending postures, and less intense backbends as well.
Grab your slumber party supplies: blankets, bolsters, and blocks. How much height you need will vary with the individual, so we’ll start with one standard setup—you can then increase or decrease layers for a customized fit.
Set up two blocks on their lowest setting and horizontally at an angle against the wall, a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Place two bolsters, one on top of the other, a few inches away from the blocks and perpendicular to the wall. Place two blankets, folded into long rectangles, lengthwise on top of the bolsters.
Sit on the edge of your bolster-blanket pile, with your feet flat on the floor and a little wider than hip-distance apart. Lie down on your back so that your shoulders meet the edge of the blankets. Your head should not be on the blankets, but if your proportions allow, the back of your head can rest against the end of the bolster with your cervical spine (neck) in extension. If this is too intense for your neck, stack several blocks (or thick books) to support the back of your head and keep your cervical spine neutral.
Reach your arms overhead and place your palms on the blocks with fingertips pointing downward. Angling the blocks takes some pressure off your wrists (if your palms were on the floor, your wrists would be at an angle larger than 90 degrees, which is a lot to ask of them).
Take time to notice how your body feels in this position. Then, if need be, adjust the height of your props, how far away from the wall the bolster setup is, or the distance the angled blocks are from each other. Do not continue until you feel your feet firmly connected to the floor and your palms firmly connected to the blocks so that you can push into them.
Draw your elbows toward your midline by externally rotating your upper arms. Try to avoid moving your hands closer to your ears. On an exhale, push your hands into the blocks and your feet into the floor to press up into wheel. As you push into the blocks, your arms will straighten. Continue pushing into your feet and hands as you reach your hips toward the ceiling and your sternum toward the wall.
Remember that it’s not just the hands and feet that make lifting up into urdhva dhanurasana possible: The whole body is involved. Activate your back body muscles by concentrating on bringing your spine into an even arch as the backs of your shoulders and hips move closer together to help support the pushing action of your hands and feet. Contract your outer hips to support the action of lifting your hips.
Stay up for three breaths, keeping your hands and feet active, and pressing into them evenly (in particular, avoid collapsing toward the outer edges of your hands and feet). To come out, tuck your chin toward your chest and bend your elbows to slowly release your buttocks to the props. Consistent focus on slowing your descent will build strength over time.
If you found that challenging, keep working there. As you become more comfortable with the action of pressing up, the next step will be to remove one blanket (if you were using two or more previously) and then try pressing up. If that feels quite comfortable, come down, rest, remove another blanket, and try again. You’ll probably find that you can remove more props over time—just make sure that each push up is as controlled and fluid as each descent.
This layering system helps you to slowly build up your pushing muscles while practicing wheel pose. You may eventually have the strength, mobility, and confidence to de-layer all the way down to the floor. If it’s comfortable for your wrists, feel free to remove the blocks as well, and to practice with your hands flat on the floor.
Learning to press up into urdhva dhanurasana teaches us to persevere even when times are tough. Each time we remove a layer of props, we meet the challenge where we are—and develop the ability to flourish alongside of it!
Photography: Andrea Killam