Upturned bow pose – urdhva dhanurasana – lifting up on an inhale or exhale?

This challenging back extension requires length in the entire front of the body. Areas of tension anywhere along the front side of the body reduce potential for mobility in the back extension.

The wheel, or upturned bow pose for many practitioners is entered into from a position of lying on the back with feet placed near the hips and the palms of the hands on the ground on each side of the head. Given the practitioner is sufficiently mobile and prepared / warmed up for this pose, the next step of entering the pose can make the difference between being comfortable in it or not.

To inhale or to exhale into urdhva dhanurasa, that is the question. 

Let’s preface the following exploration by saying that every area of mobility in the body needs to be stabilized when under load. In regards to the wheel pose, different body types have varying areas of mobility allowing practice of the pose.

The action of the breath needs to guide and accompany the transition into wheel pose.

Each inhalation is a diaphragmatic action. Physiologically, the muscular fibres of the diaphragm become tighter on the inhalation. The answer to our question reveals itself by observing the location of these muscles.

The muscles of the diaphragm are attached to the lower rim of the rib cage all the way around from front to back, as well as the front of the spine. It is here at the front of the spine where parts of the muscular diaphragm, the so-called crura, extend downwards into the lower back. This means each inhale is accompanied by a contraction of the front of the spine. This may or may not be useful in your attempt to enter upturned bow pose.

For those practitioners who need the extra little bit of spinal softness for the pose, exhaling on the lift up permits the needed mobility without feeling compression in the lower back. Remember, the deep outer muscles of the abdomen, the transverse abdominals, are directing the exhalation and provide the spinal stability without influencing spinal movement.

Others may feel discomfort in the lower back when lifting on exhaling and prefer lifting on the inhalation. When the spine of the lower back is relative to that person’s body quite soft and mobile. The added stability from the engaged diaphragm muscles distributes the curve more evenly throughout the spine.

Try this experiment first before playing with in and exhale variations in your urdhva dhanurasana.

Stand up tall in urdhva hastasana – with your arms engaged and high up above your head. Come into a standing whole body back extension, where your hips are moving forward and your arms and torso arch back. Keep your legs, arms and abdominal area engaged.

As you remain here for a few breaths, observe the changes to the depth of the back extension from inhalation to exhalation.

The outbreath allows us to move further into the back extension whereas the inbreath lightly lifts us up. This is the action of the muscles of the diaphragm in the spine. In part this action of course also involves the diaphragmatic action on the ribcage too, the effect nonetheless remains the same.

Next time you practice the wheel pose, compare your level of ease and comfort when entering the pose on either inbreath or outbreath.