Yoga is a wonderful way to enhance one’s flexibility. But it doesn’t have to be a contortionist act. Gentle stretches have a huge impact. Certain poses help open the chest and align the heart chakra. One of the most beneficial — and iconic — yoga asanas is the wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), which resembles a circus-style backbend.
However, as with any physical activity, it’s critical to fully prepare the body. Backbends counteract our natural movement, which raises the risk of injury. To achieve this amazing asana, warm up with these gentler backbend yoga poses.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
A full backbend requires strong glutes and quadriceps. To begin preparing for wheel pose, enter Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, also known as bridge pose. It engages the lower body, strengthens the back, and opens the chest. Many people also find this to be a highly energizing and restorative pose that helps relieve back pain.
Here’s how to achieve bridge pose:
- Begin in a supine (face-up) position with your knees bent and your feet planted firmly on the floor.
- Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips toward the ceiling. Your thighs and torso should move into alignment. With practice, you’ll eventually achieve a gentle curve that warms up your backbend.
You can keep your arms by your sides, pinky fingers on the floor, or clasp them together underneath your back to help open the chest.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Especially in an age when many people sit slouched at desks all day, wheel pose helps correct posture and relieve back pain. However, it requires the pectoral and abdominal muscles to stretch beyond their normal range. That can lead to injury without warming up.
Cobra pose is ideal for stretching out the belly and teaching the shoulders to stabilize for wheel pose. Here’s how to get into this asana:
- Begin in a prone (face-down) position with your legs straight.
- Place your hands right below your shoulders.
- Gently press downward as you arch your back. Take your gaze slightly upward and keep your shoulders down and away from your ears.
- Focus on lengthening the front of your torso rather than “hinging” your back.
For beginners, it’s okay if the hips come off the floor and the gaze remains forward. With practice, you may eventually bring the hips down and the gaze to the ceiling.
Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
The extended puppy pose lets gravity assist in arching the back and opening the chest. It’s a bit more intense than the cobra pose and can help prepare the body for a full backbend. Uttana Shishosana is ideal for stretching out the pectoral muscles and releasing tension in the deltoids.
To achieve this asana:
- Begin in a classic child’s pose (balasana), then extend your upper body forward while lifting your hips. Your thighs should be at a 90-degree angle to the ground. Keep your arms straight and drop your belly to the floor.
- Look forward so you can place your chin on the floor if possible. If not, it can hover just above the ground, or simply rest your forehead on the floor.
- Allow your armpits to stretch and the arms to remain relaxed.
This pose can feel a bit intense. Many practitioners find it helpful to return to the child’s pose or alternate between cat and cow afterward. If the puppy pose is too much, try a standing variation of Anahatasana (Melting Heart Pose): face a wall or countertop, place your hands on it shoulder-width apart, then allow your chest to drop toward the floor.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Camel pose is essentially a kneeling backbend. It does require more spinal flexibility, so it should follow gentler poses and warmups. However, one can enjoy greater support in this asana, making it an excellent precursor to the wheel pose.
Here’s how to get into camel pose:
- Begin in a basic kneeling position with your hips and torso in alignment. Engage the glutes and begin to arch backward until you can place one hand on the same-side heel.
- Once you feel stable, place the other hand on its corresponding heel. Allow your chest to open and your shoulders to rotate outward as much as possible. As with the cobra pose, think about stretching your belly rather than folding backward.
- Tip your head back and gaze at the ceiling. Be sure to engage your neck muscles and deltoids to prevent injury.
If you can’t reach your heel, you can place your hands on your hips to arch backward, or use a yoga block next to each foot. With practice, you may eventually reach your hands to your heels or even the floor.
Practitioners with knee pain or limited spinal mobility may achieve similar benefits with a standing variation. From the mountain pose (Tadasana), clasp your hands behind your back, then gently arch backward.
Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
It’s much easier to achieve a backbend after warming up the back, shoulders, chest, and buttocks. However, the wheel pose is still challenging and a bit scary. Thankfully, there’s a way to practice the backbend shape without the inversion.
Bow pose activates all the necessary muscles and helps open the chest and hip flexors. But instead of facing upward and inverting, the practitioner can face forward and keep the hips on the floor.
Dhanurasana is also ideal for strengthening the glutei, quadriceps, and pectorals as one counteracts gravity. Here’s how to achieve this pose:
- Begin in a prone position with the knees bent.
- Grab each ankle, then push your feet away so that your upper torso lifts off the floor.
- Engage the glutes and quadriceps to extend your legs as much as possible. Maintain your grip on your ankles to create a “bow” shape.
Keep the neck straight as your head lifts upward.
Many practitioners find that the bow pose helps them achieve a backbend shape without straining their hands, shoulders, and legs. It’s also excellent for scapular retraction and shoulder rotation, which help counteract a slouched posture.
Practitioners who struggle to reach their ankles in this asana can use a yoga strap to assist.
It’s important to remember that backbends involve all the muscles. By the same token, posture and back strength rely heavily on our legs and buttocks. Yoga proves how the entire body works together in any given movement.
To prepare for wheel pose, engage, align, and strengthen the lower body as well. These asanas create the stability and flexibility to achieve Urdhva Dhanurasana, which offers a multitude of pain-relieving and heart-opening benefits. Backbends are a journey, as are all yoga asanas.
Learn more or register for a class at Zuda to begin clearing your chakras and discovering a healthy range of motion through yoga.