Often categorised as one of the ‘baby back bends’ (along side salabhasana, bhujangasana and urdhva mukha Svanasana), Dhanurasana or ‘bow pose’ opens the front of the body while simultaneously strengthening the back.
A great shoulder-opener and a powerful way to open the chest, this asana can be taken as strong or as gentle as you feel it needs to be when you practice, but the most important aspect of the posture is mindfulness.
When we’ve been practicing for a while, there’s a tendency to fall in to habits within different asanas, which is often difficult to notice, as most habits tend to be….
In many prone back bends, (in which the front of the body is lying on the floor), a common habit is jutting the chin forward, which can cause the back of the neck and therefore the vertebrae and disks of the cervical spine to become compressed. Obviously, this is something we really don’t want to happen – and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad suspects that some headaches may actually be caused by yoga, ‘specifically by arching the neck too much when doing back bends’. Yoga is a healing practice, but we can’t always assume that just because we’re in a yoga class, that every single movement we make is going to help us. As in all circumstances, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it…. Julie Gudmestad also has also has a solution to the problem, which is useful to remember in class:
‘A solution to this problem is to try and elongate your neck when bending backward, and to prevent the head from moving too far behind the upper spine. In doing Locust Pose (Or Dhanurasana in our case), for example, you might keep your gaze straight ahead rather than looking up’.
You may notice this habit of leading with the chin in other postures, such as paschimottanasana. Our personality and day-to-day lives actually have a big effect on whether we fall in to this habit or not. A person who is very ‘headstrong’, tends to rush in to things, or is impatient, is more likely to jut the chin forward than someone who is calm, unhurried and focussed. If you’re familiar with the practice of Ayurveda and the Dosha system, you may notice that someone who is of a Pitta constitution will almost always lead with the chin and rush in to postures in the beginnings of a yoga practice.
So when we’ve figured out our habits and become aware of why we may or may not move in certain ways, Dhanurasana becomes a brilliant asana for strengthening the lower back in particular, as well as the shoulders and gluteus maximus. If you suffer with digestive issues, this posture also helps to ‘get things moving’….
To prepare the body for Dhanurasana, move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A, focussing on the position of the neck in your bhujangasana (cobra) pose. From there, lower down to the floor and practice your cobra a few more times dynamically; raising and lowering the upper body with deep inhalations and exhalations.
To bring a sense of engagement and strength to the lower back; come to lie prone on the floor again and interlace the hands behind the back at the sacrum. From here move in to your salabhasana or ‘locust’ pose – again being mindful of the alignment of the head and neck.
- From a prone position, bend the knees – making sure the legs are just a little away from each other. When we transition in to the posture, the knees are best kept at about hip distance, but with more practice you may find a way that works beter for your unique body.
- Hold around the ankles or the feet. If you’re not able to reach, then either keep the hands interlaced as in Locust pose, or if you have a belt or strap handy – wrap a it around the fronts of your ankles and hold the free ends of the strap, keeping your arms fully extended.
- Before moving in to the posture, focus on the head and neck again – ensuring you’re looking just a little way in front of you across the floor, and not arching the neck back to much or looking up to the sky, with the ears in line with the shoulders and length in the back of the neck.
- As you exhale, begin to firmly press the feet or ankles in to the hands and raise the thighs up.
- On an inhale; begin to lift the upper body from the floor too. Focus on really lifting up here – so the thighs lift up and the chest lifts up from the floor.
- Ensure the knees are about hip width apart.
- The breath can be used to create a rocking motion; as you inhale let the upper abdomen expand, and as you exhale, contract – coming in to that ‘rocking boat’ motion, getting everything moving along the digestional tract!
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or for however long you can maintain the mindfulness of the elements of the pose for….
- As you exhale, lower the legs and arms down to the floor, and rest on the floor for a moment with the head to one side. After a couple of breaths, turn the head to the opposite side to even out the neck.
- To counterpose; press back so you come to sit on your heels and take a gentle twist to each side. Then, take the knees a little wider and move in to balasana or ‘child’s pose’ for a few breaths to relax the spine.
Enjoy! Remembering that the awareness we have in each posture is so much more important
than how well we can ‘do’ the posture.