Explore Urdhva Dhanurasana: Upward Facing Bow Pose

In Urdhva Dhanurasana, the direction of the shoulders shifts to a position of forward or frontal flexion (compared with poses that extend the shoulders away from the back). Thus the shoulder stretch changes here: the muscles that extend the arms are now lengthening. The arch of the torso is raised higher, taking the front of the body into a deeper stretch. The muscles at the front of the pelvis lengthen more because the hips are in greater extension. Firmly extending the elbows and the knees creates subplots to the main story of this pose, deepening it. The hands and feet are fixed to the mat, so the energy of straightening the arms and legs is transferred to the trunk, indirectly extending the back and hips and stretching the front of the body.

Basic Joint Positions

  • The shoulders flex and abduct.                                    
  • The elbows extend.
  • The forearms pronate.
  • The wrists extend.
  • The hips extend, internally rotate, and adduct.
  • The knees extend.
  • The feet pronate.
  • The trunk extends.

Preparation

Lie supine (belly up) on the mat. Bend the knees so that the lower legs are at right angles to the floor and place the feet about hip-width distance apart. You may use a belt to catch the ankles with the hands. Then engage the hamstrings and gluteus maximus to lift the pelvis and extend the hips. This is a good place to pause to gain flexibility. Then add the arms. Place the hands just above the shoulders, as shown. Press the palms down evenly while arching the pelvis upward. Contract the adductor muscles to draw the knees toward each other and turn the thighs inward. Ease the body up to place the top of the head on the mat. Draw the shoulder blades toward the midline of the spine and open the chest upward. If you are new to the pose, pause here for a moment and then come out.

When you have the strength, press the hands into the mat and extend the elbows to lift the trunk, at the same time straightening the knees. Hold the final pose for several smooth and even breaths. Carefully ease out by bending the elbows, walking the feet away from the hands, and bending the knees to place the back on the ground.

Muscles

1. Temporarily activate the hamstrings to extend the hips. The cue for this action is to attempt to drag the soles of the feet towards the pelvis. The feet are glued to the mat, so the force of the contraction is transmuted to lifting the hips. Then engage the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus by squeezing the buttocks to extend the femurs and retrovert the pelvis. A beneficial effect of contracting the gluteus maximus is the downward tilt of the pelvis, which protects against hyperextension of the lumbar spine. A side effect of contracting the gluteus maximus is external rotation of the femurs. This causes the legs to splay apart. In Urdhva Dhanurasana we want to maintain the beneficial effect of engaging the gluteus maximus while counteracting the undesirable effect of externally rotating and splaying the femurs apart. Step 6 explains how to do this. Contract the adductor magnus to draw the knees together. This muscle also synergizes the gluteals in extending the hips.

2. Engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees. This indirectly extends the hips because the feet are glued to the mat. They cannot “kick out” in front, so the quadriceps act like a hydraulic lift to raise the pelvis. The rectus femoris crosses the hip and knee joints, moving both when it contracts; thus it is polyarticular. (The other parts of the quadriceps only cross the knee and are monoarticular). The rectus femoris tilts the pelvis forward, anteverting it. This rotational effect on the pelvis helps to extend the spine, and the retroversion helps to protect against hyperextension.

3. Pronate the forearms to press the hands into the mat, spreading the weight from the mounds of the index fingers across the rest of the palms. Contract the triceps to straighten the elbows. The long head of the triceps attaches to the scapula. Firmly engaging this muscle aids to rotate the scapula away from the humerus and prevents impingement on the acromion process. This gives more room to flex the arms above the head. Activate the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles to externally rotate the shoulders, creating a helical action down the arms and through the elbows. A cue for this is to imagine rotating the hands outward while they are fixed on the mat, as if you were washing a window.

Engage the anterior deltoids to flex the shoulders further, drawing the trunk deeper into the pose from the arms. To gain awareness of this muscle before going into the pose, raise one arm in front of you and feel the front of the shoulder with the other hand. This is the anterior deltoid contracting. To activate this muscle while in the pose, attempt to “scrub” the hands toward the feet. Experience how this deepens the asana. 

4. Draw the shoulder blades toward the midline by engaging the rhomboids. Note that the scapulae rotate outward when the arms are above the head. Use the lower third of the trapezius to depress the scapulae and draw the shoulders away from the neck. The rhomboids and trapezius muscles combine to exert a tethering affect on the shoulder blades, stabilizing them.

5. Plantar flex the ankles and press the weight into the soles of the feet, activating the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Begin by pressing the heels into the mat, and then evert the ankles to distribute the weight evenly into the balls of the feet. This engages the peroneus longus and brevis muscles on the sides of the lower legs. These actions secure the feet on the mat and are the first steps in addressing the splaying of the thighs caused by the gluteus maximus (described in Step 1).

6. Contract the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius muscles to internally rotate the hips, counteracting the external rotation forces of the hip extensors—the gluteus maximus and adductor magnus. A cue for this is to maintain the feet well fixed on the mat, and then attempt to “scrub” them apart (abduction). Because the feet won’t move, the thighs will roll inward (internal rotation is one action of the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius). Then contract the adductor group to draw the knees toward the midline. You can gain awareness of the adductors in the preparatory phase of the pose by placing a block between the knees and squeezing it.

7. Urdhva Dhanurasana stretches the hip flexors, including the psoas, pectineus, adductors longus and brevis, sartorius, and rectus femoris. The abdominals also stretch in this pose. Gently contract them to engage the “air bag effect,” which helps to protect the lumbar spine. This eccentric contraction creates a facilitated stretch of the abdominals, so that they lengthen on relaxation as a result of stimulating the Golgi tendon organ.

Summary

The shoulders flex in Urdhva Dhanurasana, stretching the muscles that extend the shoulders. These include the posterior deltoids, the latissimus dorsi, part of the pectoralis major, and the coracobrachialis. Extending the elbows stretches the biceps and brachialis muscles.

Disclaimer

Always, in your particular case, consult your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Yoga must always be practiced under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor may reduce the risk of injuries. Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor, in addition to the direction of your health care provider, can also help determine what poses are suitable for your particular case. The information provided in the blog, website, books, and other materials is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. The author, illustrators, editors, publishers, and distributors assume no responsibility or liability for any injuries or losses that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The author, editors, illustrators, publishers, and distributors all make no representations or warranties with regards to the completeness or accuracy of information on this website, any linked websites, books, DVDs, or other products represented herein. 

About Ray Long:

Ray Long, MD, FRCSC, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. He has studied yoga for over 25 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other of the world’s leading yoga masters. Dr. Long is the author of the bestselling series, The Key Muscles of Yoga and The Key Poses of Yoga and the Yoga Mat Companion anatomy series. Ray also writes a popular blog, The Daily Bandha, which details tips and techniques on how to combine modern Western science with the ancient art of yoga. He leads workshops internationally and can be reached at www.BandhaYoga.com.

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