Wheel Pose: Tips & Tricks for Urdhva Dhanurasana


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Wheel Pose: Tips & Tricks for Urdhva Dhanurasana

For anyone who has ever been to a yoga class or practiced Ashtanga Yoga specifically, you may have come across Wheel pose, also known as Urdhva Dhanurasana in Sanskrit.

Wheel Pose is a physically demanding yoga pose where the spine goes into extension. In Sanskrit, it is called Urdhva Dhanurasana, translated as Upward-Facing Bow. It can be helpful to consider Wheel Pose as a full front stretch rather than a backend, given that it stretches the entire front body.

Wheel pose is one of those poses where it is very important to do preparatory work. This is done for two reasons:

  1. To prevent any injury
  2. To help warm up the body and prepare it for this intense stretch

And so this is one pose I love to work on with my students and find all the ways that I can help them open up their front body in order to help them achieve this pose.

I’ve written a complete guide to the Ashtanga yoga poses of the Primary series, so be sure to check it out.

What is the Benefit of Wheel Pose?

The key benefit of wheel pose is that as a front body stretch, it helps to open the chest. This in turn can help us feel more energized. Additionally, wheel pose can strengthen and lengthen the vertebrae, it helps to strengthen the arms and shoulders and can even help lengthen our hip flexors.

This pose is rather challenging, especially for most beginners to yoga. There are modifications and variations which I will discuss below.

Wheel pose may come effortlessly to some people, while others may have to work on this for months or even years. It really does depend on our anatomy.

For example, if you have tight shoulders, you may find lifting up rather challenging. Similarly, if you don’t have strong arms and legs, you may have the flexibility to do the pose, but you don’t have the strength to come up into it.

According to John Scott in his book Ashtanga Yoga, “The emphasis is now on stretching and lengthening your quadriceps, opening your groin, abdomen, and chest, and, hence, stretching the front, rather than the back of the body”.

Preparing for Urdhva Dhanurasana

As a general rule, the key way to prepare for wheel pose is to work on opening the chest and improving shoulder flexibility. There are a wide variety of exercises that can help with this. Additionally, it is also important to work on leg and arm strength to help lift the body up into wheel pose.

I love teaching wheel pose preparation in my yoga classes. And the beautiful thing is that there are variations and modifications for all levels, from complete beginners to more advanced students.

Four ways to open up the chest for wheel pose. The first two use  yoga blocks, while the second two use a yoga wheel.

In this collection of images, I’m displaying the main ways you can work on opening your chest by using: yoga blocks and a yoga wheel.

Let’s have a look at these yoga wheel preparations in a little more detail.

Preparing with Yoga Blocks

In the first example, I have placed the yoga block under my shoulder blades. This helps to open up the chest in a very gentle manner,

And so whether you are working on this pose, or you want to hep improve your posture, then this is a very nice pose to try out.

The second option shows me using two yoga blocks.

This is more intense, so make sure you are comfortable with the one yoga block before moving on to two blocks.

Let’s now talk about hand and foot placement for both options.

You can have your legs straight, you can have the soles of the feet on the floor especially if you have any lower back pain. You can even bring the soles of the feet together and allow your knees to open up to the side.

This last option can help open up the groin and can feel really nice.

regarding hand placement, you can have your hands by your side with the palms facing up. This encourages the shoulders to come back and down.

Alternatively, you can have the arms over the head as I have them.

Just one note, if your hands don’t touch the floor, place a pillow under the hands as otherwise, this may put too much pressure on the shoulders.

Preparing with a Yoga Wheel

A yoga wheel can be a great way to prepare for wheel pose.

Let’s have a look at two slightly different variations that will really help you open up your chest.

In the first option, the yoga wheel is just under my neck. In the second the yoga wheel is just under my shoulder blades, making this more intense of a stretch.

Both options are great to work on if you are trying to help prepare your body for wheel pose. Just make sure you feel comfortable and can breathe comfortably in the option you are working on.

Urdhva Dhanurasana For Beginners

Urdhva Dhanurasana can seem challenging for beginners. The reason is that it asks the body to find flexibility in parts we may never have stretches and it asks for strength in part of the body that we never worked on. There are steps we can take to progress and build up wheel pose for beginners.

In the video below I explain the 4 steps you can try to get into wheel pose.

I explain the use of yoga blocks to help open up the chest, and I also show a nice variation you can try by placing the yoga blocks at the wall so as to make it easier to lift up.

How to do Wheel Pose

As a general rule, there are 4 steps to do wheel pose. In step 1 we place the soles of the feet on the floor close to the hips. Step 2 asks us to place the hands next to the ears with the fingers pointing to the feet. In step 3 we bring the top of the head to the floor. In step 4 we lift up into wheel pose.

Four steps to lift up into wheel pose.

Most beginners have no problem doing steps 1 and step 2.

Step 3 can feel challenging, especially if you have trouble placing your entire palm of the floor next to your ears.

Then step 4 is the final step for wheel pose.

This can sometimes seem impossible to many students. However, with the correct technique and working on developing the strength and flexibility for this pose, it may be more achievable than you thought.

What To Do After Urdhva Dhanurasana

As a general rule, it is important to stretch out the lower back after Urdhva Dhanurasana. In Ashtanga yoga we do a forward fold after wheel pose and stay there for 10 breaths. An alternative could be to enter child’s pose and rest there for at least 10 breaths to give your lower back time to stretch.

Woman forward folding

In Ashtanga yoga we enter pashimatanasana (forward fold) after urdhva dhanurasana. We typically practice 3 rounds of wheel pose of 5 breaths each, and so forward folding for 10 breaths can feel really nice!

People in a yoga class practicing child's pose

Of course, an alternative is to enter child’s pose. If you feel your lower back needs a little stretch, then consider bringing your knees together, as that may help you feel the stretch just that much more.

Woman practicing Malasana

I will say that my favorite pose to practice after wheel pose is actually Malasana. It helps stretch the lower back in such a way that always feels great after wheel pose or even when my lower back is feeling a little sensitive.

Modifications and variations of Wheel Pose

As a general rule, the main modification for Wheel pose is for those who have trouble lifting up and straightening their arms. In this case, the most common solution is to work on bridge pose. This way we can still work on strengthening the legs and back, even if we can’t lift up.

To work on wheel pose, you can use the following props; 

  • Yoga blocks – You can use yoga blocks in a variety of ways. Firstly, you can use them to help you open up your chest as was discussed above. Secondly, you can place them at the wall and place your hands on them and from there lift up. The nice thing about doing wheel pose this way is that less pressure is placed on the wrists, making the lifting up easier.
  • Yoga strap – I sometimes like to use a yoga strap when I’m working on wheel pose. We place the strap just above the elbows, and this helps to keep the elbows shoulder-distance apart. The reason this is important is that many beginners tend to open up their elbows when entering wheel pose, making the full expression of the pose just that much harder.
props for wheel pose

Beginner’s tips

Beginner’s tips really do vary depending on each person’s body, their flexibility, and their abilities. And so to be able to offer nay beginner’s tips, I will point out what I commonly see:

Tight shoulders

For those with tight shoulders, it may be challenging to lift up. In this case, I advise students to work on chest and shoulder opening exercises using yoga blocks and a yoga wheel.

Weak legs and arms

We need strong legs and arms to help us lift up into wheel pose. In this case I advise students to focus on building up strength. And so if you practice Ashtanga yoga, focus on building strength in the arms and legs during the sun salutations.

Stiff back

In this case, a wonderful set of preparatory poses could include the very simple cat-cow sequence. This may help to bring some fluidity and flexibility to the spine.

Woman working on a chest opener using a yoga wheel.

Props for Urdhva Dhanurasana

In Ashtanga Yoga we typically don’t use props. However, when trying to work on Marichyasana A, it is worthwhile investigating and working with pros to see how we can access the pose more efficiently, even just as an exploration.

Yoga strap

A yoga strap can be used for those who have difficulty keeping their hands and elbows shoulder-width apart. As so place the yoga strap just above the elbows and try to lift up.

If you tend to open up your hands and elbows a lot when you lift up, consider keeping the strap quite loose, and with time try to work on keeping your elbows and hands shoulder-width when you are in Urdha Dhanurasana.

Yoga block

A yoga block can be used in a variety of ways. Firstly, it can be used as a preparation for wheel pose (as was explained above). But interestingly, it can also be used to keep the knees hip-distance apart.

And so what you can do is place the block between your thighs, so that your knees are hip distance. Push into the block. If this doesn’t cause any knee pain, then try to lift up and keep the block between your legs.

This can be rather challenging as it helps strengthen the legs.

Two women practicing wheel pose in a yoga class

Common Mistakes

As with any posture, there are certain things to try to avoid.

  • If you find it challenging to lift up into wheel pose, work on bridge pose and on chest openers and give your body time to find strength and flexibility to open up.
  • AIm to avoid letting the feet open up too much, like in the image above. As you progress into wheel pose, work on keeping your feet closer to hip distance apart with your feet as close to parallel as feels comfortable for you. The only exeption is if you have any knee pain. In that case, do whatever feels right for your body.
  • Never, ever, ever do wheel pose without warming up first. Promise?

What is the other name of Urdhva Dhanurasana?

Urdhva Dhanurasana is also referred to as Chakrasana, which comes from the Sanskrit words chakra meaning wheel, and asana meaning posture. However, the most commonly used names for Urdha Dhanurasana are Wheel Pose and backbend.

What is yoga wheel pose good for?

The key benefit of wheel pose is that it helps to open the chest, which in turn can help us feel more energized. Additionally, wheel pose can strengthen and lengthen the vertebrae, it helps to strengthen the arms and shoulders and can even help lengthen our hip flexors.

Why is wheel pose so hard?

Wheel pose is hard because it requires strength in the legs, arms, and wrists, but also flexibility in the entire front body, the spine and the shoulders. By building strength and flexibility where you need it, you will be able to achieve wheel pose and make it less hard.

Can everyone do wheel pose?

As a general rule, not everyone can do wheel pose. This is because it requires a combination of strength and flexibility, which some people may never be able to achieve. And that’s perfectly ok. There are many wonderful variations and modifications can can have the same effect.

What muscles do you need for wheel pose?

The muscles that we need for wheel pose are the quads, the rhomboid, the trapezius, and the supraspinatus and infraspinatus muscles. These muscles will help lift you up into wheel pose and, if you have the flexibility, they will also help you stay there for several breaths.

How do you prepare for the wheel pose in yoga?

As a general rule, you can prepare for wheel pose by doing a yoga practice that involves arm and leg strength poses, as well as a variety of chest and shoulder opening exercises. Additionally, using a yoga wheel can help prepare the chest and shoulders for wheel pose.

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Alexia Koletsou

Alexia Koletsou is a Level 1 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher with a Ph.D. in Science Communication. She received her blessing to teach Ashtanga Yoga in 2019, from the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, where she has had the honor of practicing with R. Sharath Jois multiple times over the years. She is the owner of her own Shala in Greece and now shares her knowledge on yogamyoldfriend.com and her YouTube channel Alexia K Yoga.

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