Urdhva Dhanurasana (sometimes known as Chakrasana), is popularly referred to as Wheel Pose, though the literal Sanskrit translation is “upward-facing bow.” It’s one of those staple poses that you picture when someone tells you they do physical yoga. In the pose, the whole body looks like a beautiful rainbow, and some seasoned yoga practitioners are even able to stand directly up right out of it.
It’s a rich pose that has numerous benefits and can be a lot of fun to do, but most of us lack the necessary shoulder flexibility — and strength — to be able to press our arms all the way to straight. Fortunately, we can still get many of the pose’s benefits with our elbows and knees bent.
If we remember the over-arching (pun-intended) goal is to lengthen the spine and open the chest, there are a number of creative ways we can use props or alternative shapes to achieve those same effects without compromising our lower back (or our ego).
Wheel Pose falls into the category of postures known as backbends, which are poses performed with the spine in extension. This family of poses is said to be uplifting because they open up your heart and chest, helping you breathe deeper. They’re also believed to stimulate the adrenal glands. Chakrasana, or Urdhva Dhanurasana, also offers a deep stretch for the chest and shoulder muscles, as well as the hip flexors. It also strengthens the hamstrings and spinal extensors.Beyond that, there are other science-backed benefits of Wheel Pose.
There are a few ways to make Wheel Pose more accessible if it’s challenging for you.
The most effective modifications are often done against a wall with props, but if you’re limited in what props you have access to, there be a few adjustments you can make without any, or with just one piece of equipment.
The most accessible modification may be working on the preparation step of lifting onto the crown of the headand not pressing your arms to straight.
You can also try using a strap wrapped around both arms, just above your elbows, keeping it shoulder-width apart. This helps keep the shoulders in correct alignment.
You can also use a strap at the top of the thighs, which can prevent lower back compression. When in the pose, notice if you’re pressing out into the strap. Instead, work to loosen the strap by drawing your inner thighs down toward the floor.
You can hold a block between your inner thighs. This also helps prevent lower back compression, but by targeting the inner legs. Like the above modification, work to hold your block as you lift into the pose. It’s a bit harder than it sounds, but your lower back will thank you!Wall modifications with multiple props- For tight shoulders:
Bridge Pose is an important first step in setting up for Wheel Pose. If you’re restricted in reaching overhead for any reason, such as an injury or limited immobility, keeping your arms down by your sides can be a great alternative chest opener.
Sometimes the challenge is not your flexibility, but your strength. Doing Supported fish pose on the blocks with your arms reaching overhead is a nice way to open the shoulders and chest, without it being a weight-bearing pose.
The most beneficial poses in yoga are often the ones with the most risks. As such, what really makes them advanced is not so much the physical requirements, but the level of care you should take when doing them.It may be best to stick to one of the above listed variations if you’re experiencing any of the following:
Please note that deep backbends, or any poses with excessive spinal extension, are generally contraindicated after the second trimester of pregnancy, or once you begin showing, as it may contribute to diastasis recti.
Those with low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, high blood pressure, or shoulder instability and injury should avoid Wheel Pose, as well as people who are in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.
Sometimes we get caught up in the way a pose looks, when we may be better served focusing on how it feels. While the full expression of Urdhva Dhanurasana can be uplifting and expanding, if you’re in pain or compromising your body, you’re likely straying from the real purpose of any backbend, which is to access your heart.
Fortunately, yoga props and variations can help make Wheel Pose more accessible, and they can keep the practice exciting and interesting, too!