5 Crucial Steps to Mastering Wheel Pose

Bruce Chung
5 Crucial Steps to Mastering Wheel Pose

Energizing Wheel Pose, or Urdhva Dhanurasana, is backward bend that stretches the front body while strengthening the back body, hamstrings, and glutes. As well as mobility of the spine, this demanding backbend also requires mobility of the shoulders. Also referred to as Upward Bow Pose, this posture can be as frustrating to some as it is liberating to others. 

Let’s investigate a few of the finer points of this deceptively complex posture.

1. Releasing the Thighs and Hips

Preparation for Wheel Pose emphasizes strengthening and opening the shoulders. While this is very helpful, it would be remiss to not spend any time on strengthening and opening the thighs, specifically the quadriceps and hip flexors. 

Anjaneyasana is a simple and accessible lunge that can bring space into the front body from above the knee toward the base of the throat. Practice one to three rounds of Chandra Namaskar, using Anjaneyasana as the lunge and paying attention to rooting the tailbone and lifting the arms up and reaching them back.

Additional postures that will open the front thighs and hips are Lizard Lunge, King Arthur’s Pose, and Pigeon Pose.

2. Mobilizing the Spine

Anatomically, a backbend is known as ‘spinal extension’. For optimal extension of the spine, it must have freedom of movement. By practicing daily the four movements of the spine, we will affect the spine’s ability to open up and move. This of course will also positively impact our backbends.

1. Spinal extension: Cow Pose, Cobra Pose, Dancer’s Pose, Bow Pose

2. Spinal flexion: Cat Pose, Standing Forward Fold, Wide-Legged Forward Fold, Pigeon Pose

3. Lateral spinal flexion: Crescent Moon Pose, Gate Pose, Reverse Warrior

4. Spinal rotation: Chair Pose Twist, High Lunge Twist, Seated Prayer Twist (essentially, any twisting posture!)

3. Hugging into the Midline

Our bodies tend to take the path of least resistance in our practice, so it is no surprise how common it is for the feet and knees to splay out when pressing up into Wheel Pose. However, this can be problematic for our backbends, as when the feet turn out it can externally rotate the hips, which then compresses the lumbar spine (while in a backbend).

Staying grounded through the inner feet and keeping the knees from splaying out requires a lot of strength in the quadriceps and adductors, as well as opening of the hip flexors. If any part of this is lacking, the easiest route for the body is to let the feet turn out so that all of the movement comes from the lower back. Although the lumbar spine is typically the most mobile area of the spine, repeatedly compressing it can be potentially injurious

To maintain integrity in your Wheel Pose, actively hug the inner thighs toward each other while equally engaging the buttocks. This will help to keep the hips neutral, the inner thighs strong, and the lower spine neutral and free.

You can practice hugging into the midline with any and all of your postures. Whether you’re in a posture wherein the legs are together like Chair Pose, or apart as in any of the Warrior poses, squeeze the inner legs towards the center line. Practicing this specific action will strengthen the deeper part of your core.

4. Aligning the Hands and Shoulders

Typically, whatever part of the body connects with the mat is what will ground you to the earth. Thus, the feet (as previously mentioned) and hands are what will energize the body to create the lift necessary for wheel pose. The more you are able to rebound against the floor, the more your body can respond by lifting up.

The placement of the hands (that is, the distance between them) will dictate the amount of space the shoulders have in your posture. If your hands are placed more narrowly than your shoulders, your shoulders have little space from which to open. Sometimes a little adjustment in hand placement is all that it takes to create more freedom in your pose.

When you are setting your hands up for Wheel Pose, consider how wide you would have your hands for Downward Dog, and then experiment with bringing them wider, between 2–5 centimeters.

Speaking of shoulders, they are of course one of the most important parts of the body in getting you into Wheel Pose. The shoulders require a balance of strength and flexibility. As the arms end up over the head in Wheel Pose, practicing postures that have the arms overhead can be beneficial:

   - Urdhva Hastasana, Anjaneyasana, Virabhadrasana 

   - Add arm variations to the aforesaid postures, such as Gomukhasana arms, fingers interlaced with palms pressing up towards the sky, or Garudasana arms.

   - Dolphin Pose will help open up the shoulders while simultaneously strengthening them, specifically through adduction of the arms.

5. Achieving Wheel Pose

Taking into consideration the above, lie down on your mat, setting the feet at hip width with the shin bones vertical and the second toes parallel. Hone your body awareness to determine what that is for you. Place the hands either side of your head with the fingertips pointing toward your shoulders, and the hands at Downward Dog width, if not slightly wider.

Actively firm the inner feet into the floor (even adding a block between the thighs to help the adduction of the legs). Inhale, and press into the inner hands, lifting onto the crown of your head as you exhale. Keep the weight on the crown light, and if your shoulders have the space, walk the fingertips toward the feet a couple of centimeters. Inhale again to prepare, and as you exhale, press strongly into the hands and feet, bringing your elbows toward a straight position.

They may not straighten completely, but continue rebounding the hands and feet into the mat, activating the shoulders and quadriceps. As you maintain the posture, gently press your sternum toward the wall space it is facing, and as you press down through the feet, think of pulling the heels towards the buttocks so the glutes and hamstrings are also active.

As you harness the strength of your body to support your posture, you can start to find more freedom in your chest, abdomen, hips, and thighs.

Image credit: Alissa