Wheel Pose or Urdhva Danurasana is the reigning queen of the backbend world. She is a pose that requires extensive warm-up, activation and participation of the entire body, plus some serious courage to do the damn thing.
If you practice wheel pose on the reg, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
And if you don’t practice it, well you’re about to know what I’m talking about….
Before we move any further into this tutorial, I want to clear up a misconception about wheel pose.
Many of us, me especially included, believe that in order to perform the pose it requires immense flexibility in the back. And yes, this is true. But what’s more important and effective when attempting this extremely intense/awesome posture, is a full-body opening.
Let me repeat that – your entire body must be open (not just the back).
Cue the reason why backbends take place at the end of a yoga class (it’s all starting to make sense).
With all of that being said, below is a step-by-step tutorial to prepare for Urdhva Danurasana, how to practice the pose itself, and what to do afterwards. I HIGHLY recommend you not only follow this tutorial, but take the below measures too (safety first yogis, always).
- Warm up with 5 – 15 sun salutations (make these your own, infuse them with whatever poses you need).
- Have a block, strap and bolster nearby to act as your assistants.
- Blast some awesome jams to keep you motivated (serious must-do).
- Tune into your body and feel the difference between an interesting sensation versus a painful sensation.
- Don’t attempt this tutorial if recovering or suffering from a neck or back injury.
Okay yogis, let’s get to this badass, heart opening, full body expansion, leave you feeling inspired tutorial.
At this point, your body should be warm and ready to work, if not – rewind, move and groove, and meet us back here.
Stretch the quads + hip flexors
1. Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Anjaneyasana or low lunge is the perfect warm-up posture to initiate an opening in the quadriceps and the hip flexors.
- Place a blanket under the knee for comfort and support.
- Use blocks on either side of the front foot keeping them at the tallest height to start. As the hips open, the blocks can be adjusted to the middle and then the lowest height.
- If you want more – bring the hands to the top of thigh or possibly extend the arms straight up to the sky.
- For alignment purposes – the knee can pass the ankle so long as it’s not creating discomfort.
2. Quad Stretch
This is one is a doozy and a big opening to the quadriceps, you’ve been warned!
The How-To (moving from your low lunge pose):
- Place both hands inside the foot that is forward.
- Heel toe the front foot towards the edge of your yoga mat.
- Bend the back leg and send the heel towards your bum.
- If the right foot is forward, reach back with your right hand to grab the left foot (vice versa on the other side).
- Use the hand to foot connection to slowly, with care, bring the heel closer to the booty. Slow is the key word here.
To find freedom in the front hip, you can let the front foot roll to its outer edge (the big toe will lift off the ground) and the knee will splay out to the side.
Bring attention to the arm/hand that’s grounded and do your best to not sink into the shoulder. Instead, lift up out of the shoulder.
3. King Arthur’s Pose
And another doozy, sorry yogis, but we need to be prepared!
I wasn’t able to snap a photo for this one (because you need a wall and I didn’t have one). So instead, please use the awesome tutorial below by Jason Crandell:
Open the Shoulders
The shoulders and everything that surrounds this part of the body, must be shown some TLC. As you can see in this adorable infographic below, the shoulders must spread while the arms externally rotate, and armpits lengthen.
In order to do all of that craziness, practice the below prep poses first.
1. Use a strap
Take the strap in both hands and position the hands wider than shoulder width, you’ll need some breathing room here.
You’ve got two options, pick your poison, or do both.
- With the strap in both hands, start with it directly out in front of you, shoulder height.
- Inhale the strap overhead – straight up to the sky.
- Exhale to rotate the shoulders and bring the strap/hands down towards your back.
- Inhale the strap back overhead.
- And exhale the strap back to the front and let it release down towards the thighs.
Repeat this inhale/exhale process a few times. This can be performed either kneeling (as shown) or standing.
- Position the hands wider than shoulder width apart on the strap.
- Bring the strap overhead.
- Rotate the arms and strap by bringing the right hand to the sky and the left hand down towards the ground.
- Switch and repeat on other side.
2. Extended Puppy Pose
A fair warning, this pose is super deep, intense as hell, and not for everyone. If you come into it and you’re like – WTF – please come out of it. Not everyone is meant to be a puppy in this lifetime (but we should all definitely love them).
The How-to (from tabletop pose):
- Begin in tabletop with everything stacked – shoulders over wrist, hips over knees.
- Slowly walk the hands out in front of you and lower the chest towards the ground.
- Keep the hips over the knees and the arms shoulder width apart.
- Release forehead to the ground (or sometimes the chin is weirdly comfortable, like shown).
- Activate the arms by pressing into the palms of the hands, lift elbows and forearms away from the ground, draw shoulder blades onto the back, and reach the hips towards the sky.
Once you got all that (sorry it’s quite a bit), breath for 5-10 breaths, allow the chest to melt and the spine to lengthen, then slowly walk palms back towards the body and push back into tabletop pose.
Free the Spine
1. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
This pose is a given as we want to awaken the backside muscles and warm up the spine.
- Start lying face down, big toes together at the back of the mat, hands planted by your low rib cage (thumbs about nipple height).
- To prepare – engage the legs and feel the knee caps lift off the ground, send the inner thighs up towards the sky, hug bellybutton to spine, and roll shoulder blades onto the back.
- Inhale – root down into the palms and lift the chest off the ground, broaden across the collarbone. pull the heart through, and think – how long can I become, versus how high can I get.
- Exhale – melt the chest back down, release the hands, and either squish the hips back and forth or windshield wipe the legs back and forth.
2. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Bridge pose is a popular pose to do right before wheel pose, as all of the above helps prepare the body to practice it – open shoulders, lengthened + warm spine, and open + active legs.
- Start lying on your back, bend at the knees, bring the heels close into the booty, and plant the feet hip width distance apart. Key word here – hip width distance.
- Bring the palms down by your sides, flatten your low back to the ground, and let’s do this…
- On an inhale – push down into the feet, send the hips high, hug the knees in towards one another, relax the glutes and work from the legs, and breatheeeee.
- For an added opening – roll the shoulders underneath and clasp the hands, you’ll instantly feel higher and lighter.
- On an exhale – come up onto the tippy toes, slowly roll the spine down, and release the posture.
To train the knees and legs to stay hip width distance, I highly recommend placing a block in between the thighs and then pushing up into bridge pose. Your inner thighs will be forced to fire and hold onto that damn block – give it a try yogis, let me know how it goes.
Activate the Core
We’re almost to the meat of the tutorial, I promise – just stick with me!
We all know and love plank/forearm plank – so I won’t go into a deep breakdown, but here’s a quick snippet:
- Recruit every part of the body here, full participation, no one can slack off – you feel me?
- Spread the fingers wide, ground down into the hands to then push back up (no sagging in the shoulders), wrap the uppers arm outwards, activate the entire arm.
- Hug everything into the midline of the body – imagine you’re wearing a yoga corset.
- Activate the legs, send the inner thighs up towards the sky, let the tailbone melt down towards the heels, and send the heels straight up.
- Keep length in the back of the neck – don’t crank it upwards or let it hang like a dead head.
Then breathe it out, simple as that.
2. Forearm Plank
Do everything that I listed up above, except drop it down low – to the forearms that is.
- Stack the elbows directly under the shoulders.
- Keep the wrists shoulder width apart.
- Push down into the forearms to then push up – think of it as a gravity exchange.
Then breathe it out, simple as that.
You made it friend, it’s time to push up into that beautiful wheel pose of yours. If you’re feeling a bit nervous, that’s normal, it means you’re alive + overcoming a fear.
- Bend at the knees, plant the feet into the ground, keep them hip-width distance apart.
- Take the arms overhead, plant the palms on either side of the head, hug the elbows in towards one another.
- Gently press the low back into the ground and lift the tailbone – this will train the pelvis and help avoid compression in the low back.
- Take a deep breath – you got this!
- Inhale – push into the feet and hands, come onto the top of your head.
- Let the elbows slightly wing out and activate the shoulder-blade tips down and in towards one another.
- Reorganize here, another deep breath – you got this!
- Inhale – push into the feet and hands and rise up into wheel pose.
- Bring your focus to the foot – press down with the big toe and inner heel to send the knees towards one another (versus outwards).
- Magnetize the elbows towards one another to stay shoulder-width apart.
- Stay, breathe, allow the pose to work its magic.
I recommend 3 – 7 full breaths + use the infographic above to further refine the posture.
Please – don’t bail at the end. Use the same integrity to come out of the posture as you did to get into it, it’s worth the effort.
- On an exhale – slowly lower the body down to the ground. I like to come up onto my tippy toes first, and then lower (similar to what we did in bridge up above).
- As you lower the body, tuck the chin into the chest and let the back of the head touch down first.
- Once the head makes contact, slower than slow, roll the body onto the mat – imagine placing each vertebra down onto the mat, it’s that specific.
You did it, so much love, so much congrats – how did you feel?
If you’re experiencing some knee/elbow splayage, don’t fret – grab those props and let’s try it again.
- Interlace the strap into a circular shape and place it around the upper arms (above the elbows).
- Place the block between the thighs.
- Repeat all of the above but with your props – this will not only help keep the body in alignment, but also create a support system for you to better access the posture.
You deserve these next three poses, like really deserve them.
Please don’t forget to do these, they are the counter postures to backbending, and will help restore the body for future practice.
If you do three wheel poses, then please do the counter postures in this order.
1. Bring knees together
- Take the feet as wide as your yoga mat (possibly a bit less).
- Let the knees fall in towards one another.
- Soften the low back onto the mat.
- Arms can rest down by your side, overhead, or on your heart/tummy.
Relax, surrender, breathe, enjoy the fruits of your labor.
2. Knees into the chest
This one is simple, so just do it.
One caution – don’t super squeeze the knees into the chest as this action is too opposite of what the spine just experienced. The goal is to experience a neutral spine, so please be gentle here.
3. Restorative Forward Fold
And finally – we’ve made it to the last posture, give yourself a big hug by doing the below:
- Find a seated pose, extend the legs long, and keep the knees bent.
- Lay the chest over your thighs, wrap the arms underneath, and let the head soften towards the knees.
- The back will round – this is what we want.
If you made it to this point – you’re awesome and I’m sending you a serious hug through the computer (virtual hug).
Please use this tutorial to help strengthen, deepen, and expand your practice. And if you love, pleas share it with another yogi who’s working on their wheel pose.