Open Your Heart and Free Your Mind in Bow Pose
Resembling the shape of an archer’s bow, Dhanurasana, or Bow Pose, is a wonderful backbend that opens your heart and mind to the fullness of your potential.
Bow pose strengthens the back body (shoulders, back muscles, glutes and hamstrings), while opening the front body (chest, quadriceps and hip flexors). The pose requires you to use your legs as leverage to lift the torso while actively extending the spine forward and upward through the crown of the head. Like all backbends, Dhanurasana expands the ribs, opens the heart and lungs and elongates the spine.
How to Perform Bow Pose
It’s important to warm up the spine and low back before attempting bow pose. When you’re ready, lie face down on your belly with your legs outstretched behind you.
Bend your knees, and bring your heels toward your sit bones. Then grab a hold of your feet or ankles. This will vary depending on your flexibility.
Hug your inner thighs toward one another, keeping your knees hip width apart or closer. Then flex your feet and spread your toes wide.
With your forehead on the floor, inhale and lengthen the sides of your body from your hips to your armpits, drawing your shoulder blades toward each other and opening the chest.
Holding firmly onto your feet or ankles move your feet away from you as you inhale, using the leverage of your legs to pull your upper torso and head off the floor. Remember to keep your neck in line with your spine rather than tossing your head back.
Continue to strongly press your feet or ankles into your hands and lengthen your spine forward and upward out of your pelvis through the crown of your head, pulling your belly in and up toward your heart.
If you are able, you may want to try lifting your thighs off the floor for an even deeper backbend. As you continue to raise your upper and lower body upward, remember to lengthen your tailbone and keep your core muscles engaged to protect your lower back.
Hold Bow Pose as long as you are able, trying to keep your breath as slow and relaxed as possible. Slowly release your body to the floor on an exhale and rest. Then roll onto your back and hug your knees into your chest, or try Balasana, Child’s Pose, to release any tension in the low back.
Bow Pose can be quite hard on the lower back, which is why proper alignment is necessary.
One of the most common misalignments in Dhanurasana is for the knees to splay wider than the hips, compressing the low back. Once you’ve lifted your torso and legs off the floor continue to squeeze your inner thighs and knees toward one another to prevent the knees from splaying. (Tip: Place a block vertically between your upper inner thighs and squeeze your legs into the block while you lift into Bow Pose.)
Whenever you hold onto the feet in a pose such as Dhanurasana, you run the risk of externally rotating your feet and ankles, which can harm the ankle and may lead to knee pain. To keep the ankle in alignment, try spreading your toes and pressing through the mound of the big toe, pulling the pinkie side of the foot back. If you continue to experience any pain it is best to decrease the intensity of the pose by lowering your upper legs to the floor or releasing the feet or ankles and rest.
The last really major common misalignment in Bow Pose is the position of the head. Many students lift the chin and look up, compressing the back of the neck. The gaze in Dhanurasana is straightforward with the chin parallel to the floor. Once you’re in the backbend, slightly drop your chin and press the base of your skull back, bringing the center of your ears in line with the tops of your shoulders.
Modifications and Variations
If you cannot reach your hands to your feet or ankles, use a strap around the front of your ankles and hold the free ends of the strap in each hand. Keep your arms fully extended behind you and try moving your hands up the straps toward your ankles until you have reached your maximum range, while using the alignment cues above.
Bow Pose can also be performed by propping yourself up on both lower arms, and extending both legs straight out behind you. Bend one knee and reach back with the same hand to grab the foot or ankle. Keep the bottom leg extended and press the top of the foot down into the floor as you press the top foot back into your hand, coming up into Half Bow Pose (or Ardha Dhanurasana).
A common variation of Bow Pose is Side Bow Pose (or Parsva Dhanurasana). In full Bow Pose, take a big inhale and on the exhalation allow your right shoulder to dip as you press your left foot into your left hand and roll onto your right side. After a few rounds of breath, inhale to come to center and exhale to roll to the opposite side.
The same thing can be done in Ardha Dhanurasana. With your left foot in your left hand, right leg extended, extend your right arm forward on the floor. Inhale and draw your left leg back; exhale and move your left foot to the right, rolling onto your right in a half bow shape.
For a deeper variation of Dhanurasana, keep the inner thighs, knees, calves and feet together as you lift up; or try crossing at the wrists and holding onto opposite ankles.
If you are pregnant, have respiratory issues or cannot lie on your stomach, Bow Pose can also be performed on your side using the same principles of alignment. As in all poses, let your body determine how deep and expansive you want the pose to be, and enjoy.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (500 ERYT) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook.