Ask the Yogi-Urdhva Dhaurasana

Strength for Practicing Deep Backbends

Q. How do I get strong enough to do urdhva dhanurasana?

A.  A:  Urdhva Dhanurasana or Upward-Facing Bow is a deep backbend requiring the significant integration of strength, flexibility and alignment.  It also requires a fairly open thoracic spine and a harmonic integration of the heart, rib cage and shoulders.  Many people believe that it takes a great deal of strength to do the urdhva dhanurasana, but more significant than raw strength is the ability to align the body’s core in a way that supports foundation, navel point and heart.  As in other deep backbends involving heart opening, this involves energetic and emotional awareness as well as physical harmony…

Though the downward angle of the spinous processes limit thoracic backbending, as a backbend evolves in depth the thoracic spine has thepotential to open significantly revealing the heart and a full expression of the pose.  Core strength in a deep backbend, though significant, is irrelevant unless a yoga practitioner is open through the heart and chest.  This first requires a greater awareness of the actual core of your body.  One method is to notice the “hara” or navel point, sometimes experienced through uddiyana and mula bhanda.  By drawing the navel point upward (uddiyana bhanda) and energetically “suctioning” the floor of the perineum (mula bhanda), enough space and integration is created in the lower back to actually open into the thoracic spine.  This initial lengthening of the lower back is essential in any deep backbend as most of the spine’s forward and backward motion occurs in the between the T12 and S1 vertebrae of the lumbar spine.  Without this core integration most of the backbend will be taken in only one or two vertebrate in the lower back and result in spasms, strain or injury.

Core awareness in upward-facing bow is indicated through your ability to ground thoroughly through the hands and feet.  If the shoulders are tight and the upper back is inflexible, the physical core is being over-protected and the heart will not be able to open. The elbows and knees will splay out and core strength will be dispersed to maintain the integrity of major joints in the limbs.  The hyoid bone will pop out too early, mirroring the lumbar spine’s passivity and collapse.  A deep backbend under these conditions then becomes an exercise in futile endurance and misalignment, each reinforcing the reflexive habit of closing off to protect our core.

When it come to backbends, not only is every body different, but the emotional aspect of asana cannot be overestimated as a teacher or student.  Though physically the majority of a backbend take place in the lumbar spine, the component of the heart and its relationship to the shoulder blades and thoracic spin cannot be overesitmated.  In one class, for example, an advanced student was not getting the full opening through the heart necessary for a deep urdhva dhanurasana no matter what was suggested.  She was then asked to visualize her children and feel how much she loved them.  Instantly tears of heart-felt joy came to her eyes and her backbend blossomed fully into a thing of awe-inspiring beauty.

On the emotional level, just as in the holistic experience of opening to express Love, deeper backbends always require a certain amount of courage or fearlessness and the aility to be vulnerable and intimate.  Under normal stress-inducing circumstances, in time the body tries to armor itself off from the tensions, insults and injuries of life by closing off the heart.  Physiologically this can translate into a rounded thoracic and cervical spine or the shoulder blades creeping around the sides of the chest or over the tops of the shoulders to create a protective armor.  Since the navel point is the center of “being” and the heart is the center of “feeling”, unless we first become comfortable being as we are where we are (grounding of feet and hands on the ground) we will not be able to have an open and supported heart and feel ourselves in the posture.

From this perspective the key alignment aspects found in Urdhva Dhanurasana can be practiced in many poses including the warrior asanas (virabhadrasana 1-3), triangle (utthita trikonasana) and even tadasana (standing mountain pose).  All of these asanas can be practiced with greater awareness by gently drawing the navel point in and slightly up while seating the shoulder blades behind the lungs.  The insides of the elbows are also a great indicator of the integration level in triangle and warrior B.  If the “eyes” of the elbows are facing down or forward rather than up, the scapula are probably starting to wrap around or over to the front of the body, so it is important to stay conscious in each pose otherwise habit takes over.

A great deep-backbend alternative to the full upward facing bow is bow or dhanurasana.  After a proper warm-up and building sequence, lay on the belly with the forehead on the floor.  Take hold of the feet or ankles and gently kick back to lift the chest off the floor.  Do not let the back go passive, but instead gently integrate the throat and draw the navel energetically in.  Keep the chin down unless the heart is clearly shining forward.  This will help you to feel what it is like to have integrated shoulder blades and a supported, open heart.

remember that past injury or the way the femur and the humerus sit in their sockets for you is different from others’ practice and requires your own unique approach.  It is quite possible that you may never be able to do a full upward facing bow, but you can still get the benefits of the posture from other sources.  Be patient with yourself.  Urdhva Dhanurasana builds courage, confidence and a sense of freedom.  Ultimately it is the intention of yoga to utilize this courage and go inside to cultivate a meditation practice that leads you on the path of True Realization.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask? e-mail us by clicking here. 
More Ask the Yogi questions answered – click here.