I’d like to begin this month’s article with a story. It’s a tale about a man, his pet dog, and cod liver oil.
Years ago, a young man lived alone with a dog he cared deeply for. A friend of his told him that cod liver oil was greatly beneficial to his pet’s health and should be administered daily. So one day, he decided to give it a shot. The young man sat on a chair and gently put his pup’s head between his knees. Then, took a spoon full of cod liver oil, pried his hesitant dog’s mouth open, and fed him the oil. Each time he did this, the dog became more resistant and onerous. However, because he loved his dog so much, he continued the daily feeding of cod liver oil.
One day, as the feeding of the oil began, the owner had the spoon right up to the dog’s mouth when suddenly the animal jerked away and in the process knocked the owner over, spilled the bottle of cod liver oil, and sent the spoon flying. To the owner’s surprise, a few moments later, his dog came back into the room and began licking the oil up off the floor. Later, the dog’s owner realized that it wasn’t the oil his pet detested, it was the method of administration.
And what this story teaches us is that it is often just as important to contemplate the manner in which we conduct our affairs, as it is to contemplate the matter itself. The method in which we deliver our words, actions, ideas, and offerings, to the world will directly correspond to how those interactions are received. We know this intuitively. One cannot expect to be well received if they’re administering a message pompously, arrogantly, forcefully, passive aggressively, or so on and expect the receiver to drink it very long before being disgusted, even if what is being delivered makes sense on some level.
Our bodies work the same way. If you jam your body into a pose without any consideration of how prepared or ready it is for it, your body will receive instructions like this for only so long before something goes awry. One of the most common poses in which I witness student after student make this mistake in is Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow in English).
This classical backbend is the first advanced backbend one is required to master before progressing to deeper ones according to B.K.S. Iyengar. Urdva Dhanurasana requires strong work in the legs and a deep flexion of the spine. Unfortunately, there is a perception that this pose requires great arm strength so it is common for people to push themselves up into this backbend using mostly there arms and very little bending in their back. This is what often creates the sense of narrowness or “pinching” as many students describe in the pose. Due to the amount of force from the arms combined with the lack of flexion in the back, the spine will often bend only at its most flexible spot which on most people is T-12, L1, L2 area. If Urdva Dhanurasana is performed many times in this way, ultimately your body will respond much like the dog did after being forced something it couldn’t handle- it will revolt.
Below I will explain how to open up your wheel with minimal compression in the low back and maximum opening of the front body and extension of the spine.
Just like any backbend, before you attempt Upward Facing Bow, be sure to thoroughly open your hips, quads, hamstrings, and shoulders. This will allow for the fullest mobility of your spine and expansion of your pose.
There are countless methods and tactics for entering Urdva Dhanurasana so I’m going to just cover a few here. To ensure minimal crunching in your low back, it is important to enter the pose slowly, methodically, and patiently. Lie down on your back, bend your knees, and place your hands by your ears with your fingertips facing your heels. First, lift your hips as high as you can. The first mistake people often make in this pose is forgetting the legs are working just as hard as the rest of your body to open your spine. If you hips aren’t lifted and your legs aren’t working, at this point in the pose you’re attempting to lift your entire body with just your arms. Good luck!
After lifting your hips, push through your feet and arms and rise onto your head. This, again, can be a place where people tend to rush and go straight into the pose. Once on your head, take your hands wider and turn your wrists out. Your hands should resemble downward dog hands here. This is another important detail. If the wrists are turned in, your arm bones will internally rotate, your shoulder blades will wing off the back, and you lose much of the power in your upper body.
Then, while still on your head, push through your feet lift your hips even high and squeeze your shoulder blades into the back of your chest. These actions will create a full backbend in your spine and deep opening in your chest. As you root your feet, engage your upper back, press your head down into the floor, and begin to role more toward your forehead. You’ll be doing much more work here than you think.
When teaching Urdva Dhanurasana, I’ll often have people repeat this action several times before ever lifting their head off the floor. This work trains your legs effectively and teaches your upper back how to engage- two crucial components of doing this pose safely and efficiently.
A tip for beginners. For those having a difficult time rising up onto your head, try placing two blocks at the wall at an angle (almost like they’re a ramp leading from the floor up the wall). Place your head between the blocks and your hands on the widest surface of the blocks and repeat all the actions from above.
After you’ve trained your spine to backbend properly, then you can try straightening your arms and lifting your head off the ground. Lifting your heals will give more rise to the pelvis, power to your legs, and openness to your hip flexors which will all help open your pose more. Eventually, as your spine and front body opens more and more, your chest will push between your arms and your arms will be perpendicular to the floor. Once your Urdva Dhanurasana has reached that depth, then more advanced variations become accessible (attempting more difficult backbends, like Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, before your Urdva Dhanurasana opens fully can be very dangerous).
As with many backbends, another successful way to open your pose up is repeating it several times. If you’re serious about a deep backbending practice, work up to practicing Urdva Dhanurasana 8 or 10 (or even more) times in a row resting briefly between each one. This may take months but if your master this backbend with patience and ease, other deeper backbends will come.
Sean Haleen’s classes are noted for their humor and depth. Focusing on alignment, students wishing to learn about their bodies and the different concepts of yoga philosophy in detail will enjoy his public classes. Click here to see his weekly class schedule. Sean will be co-leading a 14-hour training, Excel at Sequencing and Hands on Assists and teaching Handstand Bonanza! Learn to Fly! in August.
Photography by Ryan Scott. firstname.lastname@example.org