Yoga Asana Series: Urdhva Dhanurasana aka Wheel Pose

Urdhva = Upward
Dhanu = bow
Asana = pose
(pronunciation: OORD-vah dah-nour-AHS-anna)

urdhva dhanurasana

Urdvha Dhanurasana is most often translated as Wheel pose, although the direct Sanskrit translation is upward bow pose. (Confusingly, this pose is sometimes called Chakrasana, which does literally mean wheel (chakra) pose (asana), but Chakrasana tends to mean different yoga poses in different styles of yoga, so let’s stick to Urdhva Dhanurasana = Wheel pose!). More on the heart chakra here.

Why You Should Practice Urdhva Dhanurasana

If you have been spending some time limbering up your back and opening your hip flexors with Bhujangasana (cobra pose) and Ustrasana, then it might be time to start playing around with Urdhva Dhanurasana, aka. Wheel pose.

Note that word, *playing*. Wheel pose is the sort of asana that can take a little time to get familiar and comfortable with — but should not be taken too seriously! Why? Well beyond the fact that yoga asanas are just, well, asanas (not yoga, as a whole — here are some book recommendations if you want to actually get to know more about yoga), trying too much and pushing too hard in this pose hurts.

The trick to keeping this pose pain-free and beneficial for the body is exploring spinal extension.
Spinal extension is the direction the spine moves in when we do an intense backbend (the opposite of spinal flexion in our forward bend). Some areas of the spine are bendier than others. When you rely on a naturally flexible lower back, not only could you potentially injure your low back in the long run, but you are missing out on a load of juicy Urdhva Dhanurasana benefits!

Urdhva Dhanurasana Steps

In these instructions, I have marked out stopping points. Wheel pose usually develops in steps with preparatory poses; each stopping point marks a step you might reach or aim for. Resist the temptation to skip over key alignment principles in order to progress to the next stopping point. The idea is to build a strong physical foundation for the pose.

Once you have reached your stopping point, jump to step 11, which will guide you out of the pose.

  1. Lie on your back, feet hip-width apart or slightly wider (wider is helpful if you have bigger thighs). Check your ankles are roughly under your knees.
    1. Optional: Take a few rounds of Bridge pose (covered below) to warm up the spine and hip flexors.
  2. Place your hands by your ears with your fingers pointing back towards your shoulders. This will create a strong stretch in the wrists.
  3. Come into Bridge pose: push firmly into your feet (especially the big toe) and lift your hips up. Engage the inner and outer muscles of your thighs by imagining you are squeezing a block between your thighs (or you can literally place yoga blocks there). You are looking for the sweet spot of engagement, so your knees and thighs remain in one line, neither tracking in nor out. Gently engage your glutes. Stopping point 1.
  4. Push firmly into your hands. On an exhale, push into your hands just enough to lift your upper body, so the top of your head can very, very lightly rest on your yoga mat (do not put weight into your head and neck). 
  5. Your elbows will want to splay outwards, so engage the muscles of your inner arms to draw them into the midline of your body. Feel the muscles around your shoulder girdle firm up as you do this. Stopping point 2.
  6. Keep all this engagement, and feel your connection to the earth through your hands and feet. Push firmly into them to lift up. Let the head hang, and the neck relax. Stopping point 3.
  7. If you can, straighten your arms (all the way, or just a little). Check that the shoulder blades are still spreading across the back. The muscles around the shoulder girdle and the upper arms are firmly engaged to keep the upper body strong.
  8. It’s not uncommon for the toes to point outwards — a little bit of a turn out is fine (especially if that is how your pelvis and femurs are structured), but try not to let them splay out all the way. Contracting your inner thighs together helps with this. Stopping point 4.
  9. Refine your pelvis and protect your lower back: tuck your tailbone under slightly. Become aware of the area where your gluteus maximus meet your hamstrings (just under your butt) and see if you can engage the muscles in this area. Stopping point 5.
  10. Play around: 
    1. Explore walking the feet in. 
    2. Open your heart: push through your feet and hands firmly and extend through the upper back to send your chest and heart to the back of the room.
    3. Lift one toe off the ground and then the other. 
  11. To come out of the pose, take your time and gently touch your head down to the mat. Then tuck your chin so you can place the back of your head down on to the mat. Slowly lower all the way down.
  12. Take a few breaths lying flat on the mat, notice the effects of the pose.
  13. Take the feet as wide as your mat and let the knees knock together, widening and releasing through the lower back and pelvis.
  14. From here, a twist is a great way to neutralize and stretch out the spine.

Urdhva Dhanurasana Benefits

  • Full body strengthening and opening.
  • Spinal mobility, especially upper back (thoracic spine) extension. 
  • Chest and shoulder opening.
  • Builds strength in the shoulders and arms.
  • Improves posture: opens through the whole front of the body, especially the hip flexors, front of thighs, and chest. This makes it the perfect pose to counterbalance desk life.

Urdhva Dhanurasana Variations, Tips, and Tricks

bridge pose

Anatomy 101: Get To Know Your Spine

Understanding how your spine is structured and where you want to be focusing, opening, and stabilizing during Urdhva Dhanurasana can help improve your Wheel pose and backbending in general.

The human spine is divided into four parts:

  • The cervical spine, aka the neck
  • The thoracic spine, aka your upper back
  • The lumbar spine, aka your lower back
  • The sacral spine, aka your sacrum (the fused vertebrae at the back of your pelvis).

Why is it helpful to know about the spine to benefit your Wheel pose and improve your backbends in general? The different parts of the spine have different levels of flexibility and also like to move in different ways. Understanding the mechanics of your spine can help you pinpoint where you need to focus on to improve your backbends or make them safer.

Spinal Mobility and Urdhva Dhanurasana

The bendiest part of your spine = your neck — but all you need to do in your wheel pose is let the head hang heavy. The least mobile part of your spine = the sacral spine; these vertebrae are fused and are a part of the pelvis, so whatever the pelvis does, the sacrum does. In Wheel pose, we lengthen the sacrum, i.e. tuck the pelvis under slightly instead of letting it tip back.

Why do we lengthen the sacrum? To support our super mobile, flexible, and bendy lower back. The lumbar spine has a lordotic curve, meaning it curves the same way the letter C does. Apart from the neck, it is the most mobile part of the spine because unlike the thoracic spine, which is attached to the ribs, so it can’t go that many places, these vertebrae hang loose.

So super flexi-lower back means super-flexi backbends, right? Sort of, but this is not what we are aiming for. It’s really easy to use just a few vertebrae in the lower back to create the illusion of a deep backend, but there is very little whole spinal extension going on in reality. In time, this can lead to lower back ache and even disc problems. This is why we engage the glutes and lengthen the sacrum, as this prevents the lower back from overextending and helps distribute the spinal extension through the spine. The other thing we do is focus on chest opening. Why? To bring some much needed spinal extension into our upper backs.

The thoracic spine has a kyphotic curve (a backwards C shape), and it likes to round forward (spinal flexion) and hunch. It also has a lot less free movement, as mentioned above, because our ribs attach to it. To counterbalance that rounding — which can lead to poor posture, upper backache, and impact the neck — it’s helpful to improve the general mobility in this area of the body. This includes bringing into spinal extension — the opposite of its preferred natural movement.

In your Urdhva Dhanurasana, focus on your upper back. Think about bringing the extension up into these vertebrae; not only is it beneficial for the upper back and posture, but it helps support your whole spine by distributing the bend throughout the spine!


Wheel pose is excellent because it works on the whole body; this also means the entire body needs to be warmed up and prepared for the pose! Focus on opening through the front of the body, especially the fronts of your thighs and hip flexors, and mobiling around the shoulders and chest. Opening through the heart is helpful, but making sure your shoulder girdle is strong and stable is also integral for this pose.

Balance Strength and Flexibility

When people struggle to lift up into a full Wheel Pose, it is usually due to one of three things: they are not strong enough in the arms and/or shoulders, glutes, and legs; they are not open enough in the shoulder joints, and/or chest, or hip joint; or they are afraid.

If you are afraid, it is a mental block. These are normal, and how you choose to navigate the mental block is personal. Please don’t push yourself beyond the threshold of comfortability; you may feel able to try and work on your Urdhva Dhanurasana regularly, and slowly chip away at the fear or resistance. However, if it is evoking a strong reaction, probably best to leave it for a while. There are plenty more asana out there, and perhaps in the future, if it feels right, you might return to Urdhva Dhanurasana.

If it is a strength issue: One of the best yoga tricks to build overall strength are sun salutations. Be patient with yourself, and focus on developing strong, stable shoulders during your chaturanga.

If it is a flexibility issue: Developing a regular yoga practice, like doing a sequence like this one or several Surya Namaskar daily, is a great way to develop more mobility and general flexibility. Yin yoga is also a great option to create more flexibility.

Another thing you can do is practice yoga later in the day when the body is more open and warmed up from having been up and about for several hours.

Best Urdhva Dhanurasana Variations

Bridge pose

Bridge pose is like a baby Wheel pose. It’s a great alternative that works many of the same areas of the body and is probably the best warm-up pose. Finding as much spinal extension as possible in Bridge pose is integral before moving on to Wheel pose.

To do Bridge pose, start lying on your back, just like Urdhva Dhanurasana. Push into your feet to lift your hips, and either stay like this and push the palms of your hands firmly into the mat. Or, interlace your hands underneath you; this allows you to open the chest more.

You can also do a restorative bridge pose by placing bricks underneath your sacrum. This is also great for those with pituitary gland issues or low blood pressure who can get dizzy from the intensity of the pose.


Bow pose! Because Urdhva Dhanurasana is an ‘Upward-Facing Bow Pose’. The benefits of Dhanurasana as a preparatory or alternative yoga pose to Wheel pose is that it is particularly good at opening up the chest and shoulders. It can help you find the flexibility you need in the upper body to lift up into Dhanurasana comfortably.

Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

If you are comfortable in your Wheel Pose and looking for advanced asanas, try exploring One-Legged (‘Eka Pada’) Wheel Pose, a challenging pose that looks and feels amazing.

The aim is to work on lifting one leg up towards the sky. However, start by getting comfortable with just lifting your toes off the ground. You will feel how your weight shifts and how you have to redistribute your weight evenly across the points of your body that have contact with the ground to maintain integrity in the pose.

Remember to practice on both legs; it’s common to find it easier on one side than the other. Even if it feels less fluid or not as natural on the other side, it’s an opportunity to work on any weaknesses in strength or flexibility on that side!

Urdhva Dhanurasana Sequencing

It’s essential that your body is warm and you have spent lots of time preparing your spine, hip flexors, and shoulders before you practice this pose. In the Ashtanga Yoga Primary series, Urdhva Dhanurasana is the first pose of the finishing sequence — it comes so close to the end because it means the body is properly warmed up by the time you reach it.

Even if Wheel pose is a regular fixture of your yoga practice, don’t be tempted to put it too early in a sequence — it doesn’t take much to upset your back.

If you are working towards Urdhva Dhanurasana, it is great as a peak pose. A peak pose is when you build an entire sequence around preparing for a particular (usually complex) pose. If you’re a yoga teacher, an Urdhva Dhanurasana sequence might involve: Cat-Cows at the beginning to mobilize the spine, extra holds in plank pose to strengthen your shoulders, low and high lunges to prepare your hip flexors, Trikonasana to open the sides of the body, Gomukhasana to open up the chest, and Camel pose.

So that is everything you need to practice Urdhva Dhanurasana safely! Happy yoga-ing.