I get a lot of questions when I teach about how to do Upward Facing Bow or Urdhva Dhanurasana (most commonly called “Wheel Pose” although technically, “Wheel” is a different pose (Chakrasana). People tend to attach ideas of achievement on the yoga mat to this pose as it’s a rather vigorous posture, requiring a good amount of strength and flexibility. I remember the time I received an email from a student in one of my classes that she had done her first Wheel Pose and in her email she said was dreaming of being able to do this pose. I had a student last night tell me she’s been trying it for months and just can’t seem to do it and it’s a source of frustration and bewilderment for her.
For my classes this week, I’ll be focusing on the elements of Wheel. Now, having said that, please know that this is not a guarantee in terms of any one person’s ability to actually do the pose; it’s more about describing the elements of the pose to increase understanding of the mechanics of the posture. It’s a tricky business to get attached to doing any one particular pose; most yoga teachers will encourage you to do your best and try to find peace with whatever your “best” is on any particular day. This is great advice as practice should be less about the actual poses we do and more about the peace we can find in our bodies regardless of the poses we take.
Having said that, I completely understand and can relate to the idea that we want to understand the mechanics behind certain poses and Wheel is one of those all around pinnacle poses that people like to be able to do. So, to that end, here are the elements of the posture:
Solid grounding through the feet: The feet need to be rooted solidly into the ground so you have the leverage to push off. Many people clench their toes, push back into their heels or even lift their toes. This will decrease your ability to push up into the pose.
Strong internal rotation through the thighs: Coming up into Wheel with a block between the thighs will encourage this internal rotation. The challenge is that the muscle most responsible for the hip extension you need in Wheel, the Gluteus Maximus, will also attempt to externally rotate your thighs, evidenced by your toes turning out. You need to take strong action to internally rotate your thighs ( as in, “toward the ground as you come up”) in order to keep the lower back broad (the sacral area). It is very difficult and even dangerous to the lower back to turn the toes out and try to push up. This compresses the lower back and can cause pain. Also, the external rotation will absolutely interfere with your ability to rise up off the floor.
Extension of the hips: As with all backbends, you are in hip extension. This is the same as if you stood up, reached your arms above your head, rooted strongly into the feet, maintained the internal rotation of the thighs and leaned back a bit. The shape of Wheel is the same; it’s just that your hands are on the ground. In order to get the opening and stretch you need, primarily through your Psoas Major muscle, you need to do work to keep that muscle flexible. All the sitting and hunching we do all day doesn’t help matters much, so preparation needs to be done before Wheel to stretch this muscle on both sides.
Bending through the whole spine, not just the top and bottom: Most people come to yoga with a great deal of flexibility in the neck, just due to the way it’s built (smaller vertebrae in the cervical spine) and the tendency to do a good deal of rotation through the day. Many people also have a good amount of flexibility in the lower back (lumbar spine) as well. However, due to the ribs being attached to the thoracic (mid-back) vertebrae, this part of the back can be pretty stiff. As a result, when many people come up into Wheel, they bend more through the lower back and neck but hardly at all through the mid back. Just being aware of this anatomical issue can be a good starting point; as you work through the practice leading up to Wheel, be sure poses like Upward Dog involve bending evenly through the whole spine, not just the top and the bottom. However, there are specific things you can do to get that part of the back moving more; things like twists or even just a simple “behind the back” bind with a strap, emphasizing squeezing the shoulder blades together ( using your Rhomboid muscles) can really wake up that part of the spine so you’re more ready to bend evenly as you move into Wheel.
Using upper body strength to push up and alignment of the elbows in towards the head: One of the muscles we use when coming up to Wheel is the Serratus Anterior. This muscle starts at the upper 10 ribs and attaches to the medial (inside) border of the scapula (on both sides of your back, of course). As you come into Wheel, this muscle will be activated as you wrap your elbows in towards your head. This will allow for the upward rotation (lifting) of the scapula on each side so you can lift your chest up and back and your belly button to the sky. Think of the Serratus Anterior muscle as if you had two hands on your shoulder blades and as you push down into the floor, the two hands “lift” you up off the floor by “pushing” against your shoulder blades and up towards the sky. Now, the only way you will get the Serratus Anterior actively contracting is if you keep the elbows wrapped in towards your head. The moment you let the elbows flail out to the sides, you will start to sink into your neck and your head will drop down towards the floor.
The importance of learning how to “turn on” the Serratus Anterior when doing poses like Low Push Up and Crow cannot be understated. It is also not uncommon for people who struggle when moving from High to Low Push up to also find it hard to push “up” into Wheel. The wonderful thing though is that these poses leverage (no pun intended) similar biomechanics. This means that the more you practice good body mechanics overall before you even attempt Wheel while in these related poses, the better shot you’ll have at getting into Wheel safely and with greater ease.
Breath. Of course, the ability to maintain steady breath while coming into the pose and continuing with it as you’re in the pose is key. Sometimes teachers will suggest you inhale on the way up but others suggest exhaling. Try it both ways and see what feels better.
Non-attachment: One of the hardest things to do but so important too is this issue of not being attached to the ability to do the pose at all. Using the tools and tips above will help but ultimately, whether or not you do the pose itself is less important. More important is the care and attention as well as compassion you bring to every pose you do.