This is the transcript for the accompanying audio
When you understand the different actions and intentions of a pose, it’s easy to develop a sequence that offers every person in a mixed-levels class the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of a pose—while also providing adaptations that take into account common injuries or limitations.
This pose clinic analyzes the actions and benefits of one specific pose—dhanurasana, also known as bow pose. We’ll explore how different aspects of the pose can be used to create a set of preparatory poses, modifications, and counterposes. You won’t need any props besides your yoga mat.
Bow pose is a back bend that uses the strength of body to open the chest and to resist gravity. Let’s look at how you can build up to the full pose by exploring the individual actions of the body that, when done together, will add up to a heart-opening, gravity-defying backbend.
The four key muscular actions of bow pose are:
- chest expansion;
- spine extension;
- hip extension; and
- knee extension.
A fifth key action of the pose is the breath. In bow pose, the breath will carry you into the pose, support you in the pose, and create a fluidity to the pose. Let’s explore all of these actions in more simple movements, with a focus on the breath in each.
Preparing for the Pose
First, come to a kneeling or standing posture. Begin to explore the action of chest expansion by drawing the shoulder blades closer together. Let the arms hang heavy; do not reach back with the arms. Instead, initiate the chest expansion from the trapezius and rhomboid muscles, drawing the shoulder blades closer together. Find a rhythm to this movement, drawing the shoulder blades together as you inhale, and letting them come back to neutral as you exhale. Continue to let the arms relax as you move the shoulder blades together and apart. Inhale, chest expansion. Exhale, relax to neutral. [Repeat] Finally, clasp the hands behind the back and draw the shoulder blades together as you draw the arms away from your back. Hold this chest expansion stretch, and feel how the breath presses into the stretch of the chest. Each time you inhale, feel the chest, ribs, and upper belly expand.
Exploring Spinal Extension
Next, let’s explore the action of spinal extension against gravity. Come to the floor, lying on your belly. Repeat the sequence you just did kneeling or standing up. Begin with the arms resting by your side. As you inhale, draw the shoulder blades together. Notice how the front corners of the shoulders and upper arms lift off the floor. Don’t exaggerate the lift by trying to lift the whole chest off the ground. Just practice the shoulder blade movement. Inhale, draw the shoulder blades together to lift the front of the upper arms and shoulders. Exhale, relax the shoulder blades apart and let the shoulders, arms, and head rest down. Repeat at your own pace a few times. Each time, you might add a bit more spinal extension by lifting the chest a little bit more.
Then, clasp your hands behind your back, draw the shoulder blades closer together, and lift the chest as high as you comfortably can. Hold this posture. Notice how you have added spinal extension to the chest expansion, and how together these two actions lift your upper body against gravity. Notice how the breath continues to move you, even as you hold the pose. Let the upper body ride the breath, lifting higher as you inhale and lowering a bit as you exhale. When you’re ready, lower the upper body and rest. Notice how the breath continues to move the belly, rib cage and back as you rest on your belly.
Hip and Knee Extension Now, let’s practice the actions of hip and knee extension. We’ll layer them right onto the movement you were just practicing. Bring your arms behind your back, hands clasped. As you inhale, draw the shoulder blades together and lift the chest. At the same time, lift both legs. Keep the legs straight, and reach the feet back as much as up. Go for length, not just height. As you exhale, lower both the upper and lower body. Inhale, come back into the pose. Exhale, lower. Inhale, rise. Exhale, lower. Finally, hold the pose. This is shalabhasana, or locust pose. Notice how the breath continues to move you, even as you hold the pose. Let the upper body ride the breath, lifting higher as you inhale and lowering a bit as you exhale. When you’re ready, lower the upper body and rest. Notice how the breath continues to move the belly, rib cage and back as you rest on your belly.
Let’s repeat that movement, changing the leg action slightly. Bring your arms behind your back, hands clasped. As you inhale, draw the shoulder blades together and lift the chest. At the same time, lift both legs. As you exhale, lower both the upper and lower body, but bend the knees as you do so. When you lower, the heels will draw in toward the hips. Inhale, lift up again, straightening the legs. Exhale, lower, dropping the knees and drawing the heels to the hips. Continue this movement. Imagine that there is a rope connecting your ankles to your shoulder blades, so that when you straighten the legs, the action pulls your chest up and open. Inhale, lift; exhale, lower. Really try to imagine that the action of straightening the legs helps to lift the upper body. Now, rest on your belly. Notice how the breath continues to move the belly, rib cage, and back.
Bridge for Preparation
We will practice one more preparatory pose before trying the full bow pose. Roll onto your back for setu bandhasana, or bridge pose. Bend your legs, placing your feet on the ground hips-distance apart. Keep the knees right over the heels. As you exhale, press strongly into the heels as if you were trying to straighten the legs. This action should start to lift your hips. Go ahead and engage the hips to help lift the pelvis and lower back. Then, inhale and release all the way back down. Repeat this movement a few times. Exhale, press into the heels as if to straighten the legs, and let this action draw you up into a baby bridge pose. Inhale, release down. Feel the strength in your quadriceps as you press up. Relax this action as you lower.
After a few rounds, stay lifted and add the first two actions we practiced: chest expansion and spinal extension. Do this by clasping the hands behind the back, rolling to the outer upper arms, drawing the shoulder blades together, and pressing the arms down into the ground. Hold the pose for a few breaths. Notice how the breath moves in the body, gently expanding the belly as you inhale. When you’re ready, come out of the pose and rest. Place your hands on your belly, and feel it rise and fall as you breathe.
Now, we’re ready to practice the full bow pose. Roll yourself onto your belly. Bend your legs and reach your hands back to hold on to the fronts of the ankles or feet. Inhale and draw your shoulder blades together, gently lifting the chest. Exhale, press back strongly through the legs, as if you were trying to straighten them. Notice how this action lifts you more into the full shape of the pose. Inhale, add the hip extension that lifts the knees off the ground. Exhale, rest. Repeat this sequence. Inhale, engage the upper back to lift the chest. Exhale, press back through the legs to lift more. Inhale, find the full shape of the pose. Exhale, rest. You can repeat the sequence, or come into the pose and hold. Notice how the breath continues to move you, even as you hold the pose. Let the upper body ride the breath, lifting higher as you inhale and lowering a bit as you exhale. When you’re ready, lower the upper body and rest. Notice how the breath continues to move the belly, rib cage, and back, as you rest on your belly.
For a simple counter pose, press yourself back through all fours and into child’s pose. Relax your back. Feel the breath move through the body, expanding the belly, ribs and back
I hope this mini-practice has given you some insight into the key actions that give bow pose its strength and grace. Remember that you can analyze any pose in this way to develop a sequence of movements and poses that will guide your students into a challenging pose with skill and ease.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches psychology, yoga and group fitness at Stanford University. Contact her at [email protected] or www.openmindbody.com.
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