Getting into this deep backbend can be challenging. At first glance, you might think this pose is all about flexibility through the lower back - that is definitely a part of it. But shoulder flexibility and arm strength are also key elements to mastering the pose. When you try this, you'll notice that your body will be better at either the low back flexibility or the shoulder flexibility. The tendency is to "cheat" by leaning into the area you are more comfortable with. This will give you a lopsided wheel with "kinks" at the hips or shoulder joints and will not help develop the muscles you need to be stretching. Whenever you come into this pose, be sure to aim for a nice smooth curve in the back with no kinks. The more you practice this way, the more centered and relaxed you will feel in the pose.
If your challenge is the lower back, you may want to spend some extra time in the backbend section of this practice. Cobra and Locust will develop strength, Camel and Bow will push your flexibility limits. Both are equally important in developing a beautiful Urdhva Danurasana.
The combination of the inward rotation and elevation of the arms can also be quite uncomfortable for students. Of all the positions our shoulders are capable of, I find this one the most difficult. Luckily, we get lots of practice in poses like Downward Dog and Chair pose. If you are having a lot of trouble with the shoulders aspect of the pose, spend some time in these two poses to build up your strength and flexibility and then try Urdhva Danurasana again - you will be amazed at the difference.
One thing many people may notice in Wheel is that it can be hard to breathe, which leads to a panicked feeling. This is to be expected. Look at what happens to the front body in this pose - your diaphragm and lungs are getting a wicked stretch - there is very little room for them to expand to take in more air. If you notice yourself struggling to breathe, try shifting the weight forward into your hands and switch to a shallow, controlled breath. As you become more used to breathing into your overstretched front body it will become less panic-inducing. With enough practice the shoulders will become nice and open, giving your lungs a little more space to expand and contract.
To warm up for Urdhva Danurasana (Wheel), try practicing the following sequence:
- Sun Salutations (at least 6 of any variety - you want your body to be warm!)
- Downward Facing Dog (opens shoulders)
- Chair (opens shoulders, builds heat)
- Warriors A & B (warms up thighs)
- Dolphin to Plank to Dolphin Flow (3-4 times through, opens shoulders, builds heat)
- Wide Leg Forward Fold: Variation with arms clasped behind (opens shoulders)
- Hero (opens the thighs)
- Cobra or Locust (2-3 repetitions, strengthens back muscles)
- Bow (1-2 repetitions, back strength/flexibility)
- Camel (2-3 repetitions, back flexibility)
- Bridge (may modify with hands clasped behind the back, shoulder openness, back flexibility)
- Half Wheel (rest with the crown of your head on the floor)
- Wheel (you made it!)
- Optional: Wheel w/ Leg Extended Upward
Make a mental note as you scan the practice above - what poses do you dread the most? We tend to avoid the poses that are difficult and only do the ones we like. The difficult poses are probably the ones that are limiting your success in Urdhva Danurasana. Try to spend some extra time in these poses and see if it makes a difference for you.