Our shop is open!

CHECK IT OUT

Tag Archives: backbends

Yoga Pose Notebook: Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. Learn more here here. Or I have three separate teacher trainings available online. Learn more about my Arm Balances, Sequencing, and Anatomy Online Courses here.

I think I’m pretty good at teaching yoga. But, I also think I get lazy once in a while and I don’t expose students to the world of backward bending that exist beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana. I regularly teach a couple of prone backbends, some bridge pose variations, then conclude the backward bending series with Urdhva Dhanurasana. That’s it. Time and time again. So, I’ve turned over a new leaf. We’re going beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana in all of my experienced-level classes. And, the first pose to tackle in this progression is Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana.

If you have a reasonable degree of proficiency in Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can start working on lifting one of your legs for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s literally one step away.

But, this step introduces a ton of instability into the posture, so there a few things I like to do in order to make the posture accessible—and less likely to make your SI and lower-back feel tweaky.

How to Find Balance  in an Asymmetrical Pose

First, Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana is referred to as an asymmetrical backbend. There’s an essential component of alignment in asymmetrical backbends that applies to this one, too. Ready? It’s essential that only part of your body that is asymmetrical are your legs.

You do NOT want your hips to be asymmetrical or your spine to be asymmetrical. Your top leg is flexing and your bottom leg is extending. The pelvis, however, needs to stay level and your spine needs to backbend without any twisting motion. Rotating your spine while doing a deep backbend may over stress your lower-back.

There are a couple of ways to keep your hips level in Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, the leg that stays connected to the floor has to work much harder. Obvious, right? In particular, the abductors and the gluteus maximus on the standing leg need to work like mad. Without intense engagement in these muscles, your opposite hip (the side of the lifted leg) will drop slightly toward the floor. If this hip drops, the pelvis and spine will rotate. Not good. Also, be mindful that engaging your glutes and outer hip muscles may externally rotate and abduct your bottom leg. I don’t actually have a problem with this, since it’s preferable to the opposite hip collapsing. But, if you don’t like the feel of it, you can also hug your leg toward the midline by engaging your adductors.

Committing to strongly reaching your top leg toward the ceiling also helps keep the pelvis level. You can’t phone in this pose. You’ve got to reach the top leg full barrel. To do this, I like to pull my lifted knee toward my chest as strongly as I can. Then, I reach my top heel toward the ceiling. I find that flexing the top foot instead of pointing my top foot gives me more levity and height in the posture.

Tips for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

There are two more details that help me with Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, I step my feet a little closer to each other before lifting my leg. Second, I place my hands wider apart than I do for Urdhva Dhanurasana by about six inches.

Think about it this way. In regular Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a rectangular base. When you lift one foot off the ground for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a triangular base. In order to make the triangular base of Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana more stable, it’s helpful to broaden the arms and center the remaining foot. This provides more stability in the posture, which allows for greater range of motion.

See also Essential Sequence: Ease Into Urdhva Dhanurasana

Give these steps a try and see how the pose feels in your body. Of course, your practice isn’t just about doing harder things like Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s also about continuing to learn and grow. And, even if you can’t do this variation, practicing it a time or two will make the regular version of Urdhva Dhanurasana feel like a piece of cake.

4 comments Add Your Own

Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. Learn more here here. Or I have three separate teacher trainings available online. Learn more about my Arm Balances, Sequencing, and Anatomy Online Courses here.

QUESTION
Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles (or glutes) in backbends because this will compress the sacrum and lower back. Others say that it’s essential to use the glutes in backbends. What do you recommend?

ANSWER
First, let’s acknowledge that different students may benefit from slightly different actions in any given posture. So, the most accurate way to answer this question is to say that most students will benefit from engaging their glutes in backbends. Here’s why:

GLUTES IN BACKBENDS: THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY

The gluteal family is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. When teachers talk about engaging the glutes in backbends, they’re referring to the gluteus maximus. When we engage the gluteus maximus—particularly the lower fibers near the hamstring insertion—these muscles extend the hip-joint. This is a good thing because we want the hips to extend slightly when we do backbends in order to help decompress the lumbar spine. Gluteal engagement also helps stabilize the sacroiliac joint—which is valuable because so many long-time yogis have hypermobile and unstable SI joints.

But, let’s answer the question with a little more nuance since some backbends are enhanced by gluteal engagement and others are not. Prone backbends like Locust and Cobra Pose probably don’t benefit as much from gluteal contraction because the weight of the pelvis rests on the floor during these postures. This means that you don’t need gluteal strength to lift the pelvis because it stays on the ground in the pose; you also don’t need the stabilization that the glutes provide because the pelvis is supported by the floor.

In kneeling backbends like Camel Pose and supine backbends like Bridge Pose and Upward Facing Bow Pose, gluteal engagement is more helpful. These postures produce a greater degree of spinal extension so it’s even more important that the pelvis and spine move cohesively. Engaging the glutes near the hamstring insertion, will help maintain this balance by rotating the pelvis slightly back over the top of the legs. This will help reduce lumbar compression—the feeling of your lower-back “crunching.” Even more, the glutes help lift the weight of the pelvis in supine backbends. If you don’t use the glutes in these postures, you might unnecessarily burden less efficient muscle groups.

Some teachers and students are concerned that using the glutes will make the knees splay too far apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s easily managed. All you have to do in this situation is co-contract the muscles that line the inside of your thighs, the adductors. Firing the adductors while you engage your glutes will keep your thighs nice and neutral.

THE SEQUENCE

In the poses that follow, the prone (face-down) backbends are instructed with passive glutes, whereas the kneeling and reclined backbends are instructed with active glutes. I encourage you to experiment in these postures and observe what works best for your body.

Locust Pose

Lie down on your belly. As you exhale, lift your upper-body away from the floor. Root down through the top of your feet and ground the top of your smallest toe. Keep the glutes passive and focus on the work of your spinal muscles.
Locust Pose - Salambhasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Cobra Pose

Again, start on your belly. Place your hands on the floor on either side of chest. Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone as you partially straighten your arms. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and hug your elbows toward your sides. Keep your glutes passive and allow your spinal muscles and arms to guide you into the posture.
Cobra Pose Bhujangasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Upward-Facing Dog Pose

Come into Upward-Facing Dog from Chaturanga. Once you’re in Updog, allow the glutes to be relatively passive. Focus on grounding down through your fingers, hands, and feet while lifting your thighs, hip-points, and chest.
Upward Facing Dog Pose Urdvha Mukha Svanasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Bridge Pose

Lie on your back, bend knees and place your feet flat on the floor, close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. You can either keep your arms by your sides or clasp your hands underneath your buttocks. Press down through your feet and raise your hips. Your glutes will fire to help raise your hips. Gently engage your inner legs by imagining that you’re squeezing a block between your thighs.
Bridge Pose Setu Bandha Sarvangasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Camel Pose

Kneel on your mat and touch your hip-points with your finger tips. If you have a block, place it between your inner thighs. Lift your hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. This action will begin to fire your glutes near the insertion of the hamstrings. (One of my teachers, Richard Rosen, calls this part of the glutes the LBMs, or lower buttocks muscles.)

Take your hands to your heels, lift your chest, and lengthen your breath. If there’s a block between your thighs, squeeze it firmly. This engages your adductors and keeps your thighs parallel to each other.
Camel Pose Ustrasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Upward Bow Pose

Lie on your back like you did for Bridge Pose. Separate your feet hip-width. Lift into the posture on your exhalation. Once you are in the posture, bring your awareness to your glutes. Given the demand of the posture, your glutes will be firing. Feel the support that they’re providing while being mindful to simultaneously engage your inner thighs by hugging them toward your midline.
Urdhva Dhanurasana Upward Facing Bow Pose - Glutes in Backbends

This post was originally featured on yogaglo. Please visit yogaglo.com where I offer online classes as well as e-courses focusing on sequencing and anatomy.

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

3 comments Add Your Own

5 Propped Poses to Help You Fall in Love With Backbends

Dhanurasana on a bolster
Think you can’t love backbends? You can. I promise, promise, promise. Backbends have always been — and still are — challenging for me. Even as a child, when I’d do an arabesque or a port de bras – both backbends in their own way – in ballet class, my back just looked flat and felt crunchy.

Early on in my practice, my desire to do deep backbends meant that I’d push myself too far and wind up feeling really awful the next day. Two things eventually happened that changed this pattern: First, I got curious about what was obstructing my backbends – was it really just my spine? Because that’s where all of my focus had been. When I started doing this self-inquiry, it became clear that it wasn’t. In some poses, it was that I hadn’t yet focused on the actions of the shoulder blades, while in other poses my tight hip flexors and quadriceps were limiting my range of motion. When I started to asking questions and investigating, things got infinitely more interesting and fun.

The second thing that happened was that I attended enough different yoga classes that I learned to use props. This was a complete game-changer for me. In this day and age of the fast-flow yoga obsession, props get a bad rap: They’re considered cumbersome or people feel embarrassed to use them. But I can attest that using just two blocks or a bolster can give you just the lift you need to go from crunchy and painful backbends to that heart-open, soaring feeling you crave.

So, without further ado, here are my favorite ways to make my backbends feel more open, spacious, and supported. Once you learn them, you can incorporate them into your regular practice without interrupting the flow and I promise you will notice a difference.

An alignment note: Jason often teaches how important it is to initiate backbends from the pelvis, and I agree. Initiate your forward bends by tilting the pelvis forward and initiate your backbends by tilting the pelvis – you guessed it – back.

To feel what that means, stand in Tadasana with your hands touching the bony protrusions on the front of your hips. Now, draw the hip points up (they won’t actually move very far in space) and gently drawing your abdomen back. Instead of letting your tailbone point back, think of drawing it down as though you were going to dig a hole in the ground with it. Aim for this position in all of your backbends.

1. Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog
Placing your hands on blocks in Updog gives you more space to get your pelvis into position and pull your chest through your arms. Once you get the sensation of broadness in your chest, you can start to draw your shoulder heads back and lift your breastbone up.

How to
Place your blocks on your mat, shoulder distance apart. Place your hands on the blocks and prepare for the pose: With your elbows bent, draw your shoulder heads back and feel your shoulder blades moving toward your spine. Gently draw your abdomen back and lengthen your low back.

Now, lift up into the pose and work your legs. Work your legs! They are the supporting players in your body’s ensemble – draw your quads up, squeeze your inner thighs toward each other and hug your outer ankles in. Do you feel brighter, lighter, more lifted in your Updog now?

2. Dhanurasana

Dhanurasana on a bolster
If given the choice, I would always do Dhanurasana on a bolster. My experience of this propped variation is that the bolster gives me the boost I need to really lift my chest and it presses into my abdomen and helps me keep my lower back long.

How to
It may take some time for you to find just the right place for the bolster. If it’s too far back, you’ll do a faceplant. If it’s too far forward you’ll compress your bottom ribs. Ideally, it will be underneath the front of your pelvis – so across the pubic bone.

Once you feel like it’s in the right place, place your fingertips on the floor in front of you, bend your knees and lift your chest. Reach back and grab your outer ankles. Then strongly kick your shins back into your hands and straight up toward the ceiling. Allow your shoulder blades to squeeze together and lift your breastbone. Keep your lower back long.

3. Camel

camel_collage
Using blocks Camel Pose can help you remain aligned and stable in your lower body. When your pelvis and lower body are stable in backbends, you’re less likely to “sit in” (i.e. compress) your lower back.

How to
Stand on your shins with a block on either side of your outer ankles. Look down and see that your knees are directly beneath your hips. Squeeze your inner legs together so that you feel supported. Bring your hands to your lower back, fingertips pointing down – let this serve as a tactile cue to keep your low back long. From there, inhale as you lift, lift, lift your breastbone and arch back. Bring your hands to the blocks and press down into them. Allow your heart to rebound up toward the ceiling. Keep your lower back long.

4. King Arthur’s Pose — The Road to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II

eka_pada_II_collage
There’s no variation that helps me more with the Pigeon series than King Arthur’s Pose. It’s incredibly efficient at opening the hip flexors and quadriceps while your knee is flexed (which is the same position your legs are in for full Pigeon). It also gives you the opportunity to practice keeping your pelvis and lower body stable while you lift your chest and start to backbend toward the wall.

How To
If you have sensitive knees, fold a blanket or grab a pillow and place it against the wall. Set up two blocks so that they’re near your mat. To get into the pose, come into a standing forward bend with very bent knees and your fingertips on the floor. Bend your left knee and place your shin against the wall. Slide it down until your knee is on the floor and against the wall. Then step your right foot forward between your hands.

Press your shin against the wall and tilt your pelvis back. Place your hands on the blocks and stay. Breathe. Stay. Curse the gods. And stay a little longer.

If you feel stable here, lift your chest, and draw your arms up by your ears. If you want to go deeper, keep lifting your chest and reach your hands back toward the wall. You are almost in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II! This is your version of the pose, so own it.

5. Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Upward Bow or Wheel Pose)

Urdhva Dhanurasana

I like placing the blocks under my feet in this pose, because I have extremely tight hip flexors and quads. If your shoulders are tight, you might prefer the blocks under your hands. Better yet, try both and feel the difference.

How to
Do this pose only after a good, thorough backbending sequence! You can find a full sequence to Urdhva Dhanurasana here. The set up for both of these is the same: Place your blocks on your mat against a wall. Lie back and place your hands on the edge of the blocks. For this version of the pose, I suggest coming up in one breath (not resting on the head). Take a big breath in, then exhale and use your arms and legs to press up into the pose. Draw your tailbone toward your knees and lift your breastbone straight up toward the ceiling. Stay for a few breaths and then slowly lower down. Rest for a few breaths, then try placing your feet on the blocks and repeat the instructions above.

If you need more details about how to get into Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can check out the full pose breakdown here.

Let me know how it goes and if you have any favorites to add in the comments!

12 comments Add Your Own

The Surprising Way to Deepen Your Backbends

King Arthur's PoseFor a very long time I thought my backbends were tight because my back was tight. I don’t mean to humblebrag, but, uh, logic is one of my strong suits. Unfortunately, my logic was causing me to see only half of the picture: My hips were impeding me just as much as my computer slouch.

I had to change my perception of backbends: They not only require bending your spine, they require openness along the whole front side of your body. In other words, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are hanging you up in your backbends, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips, and abdomen.

Most of us are tight there as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This tightness makes it difficult to tilt the pelvis backward (posteriorly) — think hip bones lifting, tailbone dropping. This backward tilt of the pelvis is necessary if you want to create an even backbend. If you can’t get your pelvis into position, you’re more likely to compensate by overarching your lower back.

WHY WE LOVE KING ARTHUR’S POSE:
King Arthur’s Pose and its variations intensely targets quads and hip flexors, making it a great prep for backbends. It’s also adjustable: You can press your hips all the way back against the wall to really target the quads. Or you can lower your hips (like a Low Lunge) if you want to get more into the hip flexors and adductors.

WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT STRETCH?
The effectiveness of King Arthur’s Pose stems form the fact that it stretches all of your quadriceps and hip-flexors simultaneously. The technical reason for this is that your knee is flexed and your hip is extended. This means that the posture is stretching your vasti muscles (3 of your 4 quadriceps), your rectus femoris (your 4th quadriceps which is also one of your hip-flexors), and your illiopsoas. If your abdominals are particularly tight, you might also stretch them in this posture.

HOW TO:
A friendly PSA: It can take some experimenting to get into the pose. Be patient and play around with what feels most effective. Knee pain = back off. It is not worth (ever) hurting your bod in an effort to do a pose.

1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.
2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.
3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.
4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.
5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.

BE MINDFUL OF:
Moving your pelvis toward an anterior tilt: If you find yourself sticking your bottom out, it’s a sign that you need to come out of the stretch a little bit. To counteract an anterior tilt, think of lifting your hip points up toward the ceiling as your tailbone drops toward the floor.

Similarly, keep your spine upright, not leaning forward. If you feel any strain, bring your hands to the floor or to blocks.

WHAT POSES WILL THIS HELP ME WITH?
King Arthur’s Pose is an excellent prep for Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Wheel Pose or Upward Bow Pose) and the whole Pigeon family of poses, which require you to keep your pelvis stable while one leg stretches forward and the other stretches back.

Wheel Pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, II, & IV

WHERE SHOULD I PUT IT IN A SEQUENCE?
I usually place this pose after Sun Salutations and standing poses. It’s a natural place to pause and give take a breather. As you hang out in the pose for at least 20 breaths, you can remind yourself that this period of focused effort reward you with more playful backbends later.

This is also the perfect “TV watching” or “newspaper reading” pose. Hang out in it while you watch the Bachelorette and your whole family will be impressed!

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

2 comments Add Your Own

Essential Sequence: 30-Minute Whole Body Sequence

There are days when we want to work toward a peak pose, and there are other days when we’re not sure what to do with our bodies. On those days, I always find it’s most helpful to do an all-around balanced practice: One that stretches and strengthens all the different regions of the body, that works the front body, back, and side body, and that allows me to turn upside down, even if only for a 5-10 breaths.

Not only are these types of sequences physically balancing, they are often incredibly soothing to the nervous system. To encourage this effect, I invite you to spread your attention evenly throughout your whole body as you do each pose in the sequence below. Instead of focusing on the part of your body that feels the biggest sensation or stretch — which, by the way, can be a very valuable technique for focusing attention during asana practice — try to give all the different parts and pieces of the pose the same amount of attention. Let the shapes of the poses spark genuine curiosity in you — check in to what the back leg is doing in Warrior II or what the fingers are doing in Triangle Pose. By cultivating this type of attention, you’ll create a wonderful sense of soothing equanimity in your attention, in your nervous system, and in your poses.

Whole Body Yoga Sequence

Download PDF

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

11 comments Add Your Own

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other