Wheel

By targeting your tight spots, you can go deep and discover your best backbend ever.

AH, BEAUTIFUL URDHVA DHANURASANA. As the arms and legs press strongly down into the ground like pillars, the entire length of the spine curves into a deep, even arch. It's striking, it's inspiring, and it's...well, everywhere. Walk into nearly any hatha yoga class at any time of day, and you're likely to encounter the pose that is also known as Upward Row or Wheel Pose.

It's easy to feel simultaneously seduced ancl humiliated by Urdhva Dhanurasana. The pose might evoke a burning desire to achieve and conquer this backbend, but if you're a beginner, you might feel fearful that you won't make it up. And if you're a more experienced student who has pressed up dozens of times, you might find yourself wondering, "Is it still supposed to feel like this? Am I supposed to feel the lower-back twinges, the shoulder soreness, and the occasional after-class sacral aches?"

In either case, when fear or frustration about Urdhva Dhanurasana arises, the first impulse is often to rely on pure force to muscle yourself into the pose. When you do, there are a few telltale signs that this is happening. You hear yourself grunt as you go up. You feel your knees and feet kick out. You push up quickly and pop your shoulders out of joint, overstretching the delicate rotator cuff muscles. A large, pulsing vein bulges out on your forehead. Do any of these things sound familiar? Such a brutish approach to Wheel not only puts your muscles and joints at risk for injury, but also unravels all the hard work you've done maintaining the integrity of your breath.

Fortunately, you can strike a balance between yearning and frustration. To do so involves the yogic concept of self-study, known as svadhyaya. Instead of pushing yourself into the pose, you can apply svadhyaya by refining your awareness of what is happening in your body and mind. One way to do this is by breaking down the pose into three components and assessing how your body responds to each. Urdhva Dhanurasana requires openness in the shoulders and chest; flexibility in the front of the hips, legs, and abdomen; and suppleness in the back body. It also requires arm and leg strength, but if you're able to hold a

On the following pages, we give you poses that are efficient at opening the legs, shoulders, and back.

Use them to explore your body, noticing areas of tightness and areas of ease. Ton can incorporate these poses into your practice as an excellent preparation for Urdhva Dhanurasana. Or, if, for example, you notice that your thighs are disproportionately tight, you can incorporate the poses for your legs into your daily practice— whether sequencing to Wheel or not.

well-aligned Plank for five deep breaths, you're probably strong enough to do the pose. When muscular tightness releases, the pose requires less force.

Armed with this knowledge of the architecture of the pose, you can create sensible, thorough sequences that open your shoulders, hips, and trunk before practicing Urdhva Dhanurasana, allowing you to backbend more deeply and comfortably

You can also begin to notice where you get hung up in the pose. Many practitioners arc disproportionately restricted in one region. You might be surprised to find rhat your shoulders are naturally very open, but your thighs are so tight that you can't lift your hips without your feet splaying out. If that's the case, then you have a clear starting place from which to work—you can spend time in your daily practice cultivating openness along the front of your legs, abdomen, and hips. Or you may find that your shoulders and hips are plenty malleable, but there is stubborn resistance in your mid-back. Spending more time opening the torso will allow you to develop more ease in Urdhva Dhanurasana. In essence, refin ing your awareness will enable you to make choices that will create transformation.

As you practice breaking down the pose this way, don't be disappointed if you're one of those folks for whom each component is difficult. A deep pose maybe beautiful, but the depth of your Urdhva Dhanurasana is not the most important thing. What's most important is that you develop a method that forgoes ego and force in favor of exploration and awareness. Ifyou can do that, you can build a backbend that works for you — one that exhilarates, stretches, strengthens, and soothes you all at once. Ready to begin?

thighs

Most students know that a healthy forward bend requires suppleness in the back of the legs. This type of flexibility enables you to rock the pelvis forward over the thighs, allowing the spine to lengthen and release. A similar principle applies to backbends. A healthy backbend requires suppleness along the front of your legs and abdomen. In order to arch your spine into a backbend without crunching your lower back, you need to open the front of the thighs so you can rock the pelvis backward over your legs.

If you spend much of your day sitting, this can be difficult to accomplish. Sitting ftexes the hip joints, which can make the muscles along the front of the hips tight and may impede your ability to move your pelvis into backbends.

King Arthur's Pose and Bridge Pose are perfect preparations for Urdhva Dhanurasana because they help release tension from the front of the thighs and hips. Bridge Pose will give you adequate practice with the positioning of your feet, legs, and hips for Urdhva Dhanurasana.

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Arthur's

Love it or loathe it, King Arthur's Pose will elongate your tight thighs efficiently. Start by folding your sticky mat in guar-ters and placing it next to a wall. Knee! with your back to the wall, place your right knee on your sticky mat, and extend your right shin (foot pointed) up the wall. Step your left foot forward two to three feet so that you are in a lunge, with your left knee situated directly above your ankle.

Piace your hands on your hips and observe the angle of your pelvis. Your hips will probably tilt forward, since this allows your body to avoid stretching your thighs. To improve your alignment and facilitate greater opening, lift the front of your pelvis and lengthen your tailbone and buttocks toward the floor. Increase this stretch by bending your front knee deeper as you draw upward throuqh your abdominal core. If you really want to challenge yourself, press the top of your right foot against the wall. This will engage your thigh muscles as you stretch them, creating more intensity.

To enter the second phase of the pose, vigorously extend your arms up toward the ceiling. As you reach up, lengthen your spine and lift your ribs further away from your hips. Complement this by bending your front knee and lowering your hips further. Remember to draw your tailbone toward the floor and retain the neutral position of your hips.

Breathe slowly and deeply into your abdomen. After 10 to 15 breaths, release your hands to the floor and take your right shin off the wall. Pause for a moment before you switch sides.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

An ideal way to continue opening the front of your thighs and hips is to take Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. or Bridge POSe, which offers a blueprint for the leg and foot positions In Wheel.

To begin, lie back, bend your knees, and place your feet hip-

width apart. Bring your feet close to, but not touching, your

hips, and align your arms alongside your body. See that the outer edges of your feet are parallel and that your toes are pointing straight forward.

Bridge Pose

Initiate the pose by gently pressing your lower back Into the floor so that your tailbone curls slightly upward. Root down through your feet and begin to peel your hips away from the floor. Mindfully, roil up, vertebra by vertebra, and lengthen your tailbone toward the back of your knees. Tuck your shoulders underneath your chest. Interlace your fingers-or hold the outer edges of your sticky mat-and burrow downward into the mat with your arms.

Continue to lengthen your tailbone and your lower back, and shift your attention to your legs. Align your thighs so that they are parallel to each other, and position your knees directly above your ankles. Keep your shins vertical. This is the way you set the feet and legs for Wheel. Breathe slowly and deeply into your abdomen. After 6 to 10 breaths, walk your feet away from your hands and slowly lower to the floor.

In a comfortable, healthy backbend, your entire back-lower, middle, and upper-will have a similar degree of sensation. In an uncomfortable and poorly distributed backbend, parts of your back will have intense sensations, and other parts will feel dull. Most people immediately feel the sensation in the lower back (because it's more flexible and often bears the brunt of the curve) and less sensation in the middle and upper back, in order to bring the spine into greater harmony during Urdhva Dhanurasana, you will need to awaken the thighs and shoulders, and prepare the torso and spine. Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana with a chair and Bhujangasana will teach you to distribute the curvature of your back evenly.

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Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, variation

Support your weight on a chair in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose) to open your chest and shoulders, stretch your abdominal area, and encourage length in your spine. When the chair is in the correct place, this pose will distribute the sensations of the backbend evenly along your spine, providing a somatic reference for what an idea! Urdhva Dhanurasana feels like.

Place a chair close to a wall (not on a sticky mat), facing out. Roll up your sticky mat and set it beside the chair. Sit with your legs through the back of the chair and place your feet on the floor a few inches away from the wall. Slide your buttocks all the way to the back edge of the chair (toward the wall). Place your rolled sticky mat on the chair seat so that one end touches the back of your hips (against your sacrum). The sticky mat should be positioned lengthwise down the middle of the chair seat. Slowly lower your spine onto the rolled mat and adjust your position on the chair so that the bottom tips of your shoulder blades are in

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