Bow Pose: Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose

Bow Pose or Dhanurasana a back bend pose in yoga.

Over the centuries, the bow and arrow have symbolized everything from birds in flight to a phallus to the path of a sadhu, the most direct and efficacious route to enlightenment. A bow’s combination of tautness and flexibility is a metaphor for the Indian philosophy of balance in the Universe. Plato said, “The harmony of the ordered world is one of contrary tensions, like that of the harp or bow.”

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra 2.46, the first of three that describe the physical practice of asana, says, “The physical body should be steady and comfortable.” The mindful practice of finding equilibrium between strength and flexibility defines the art of yoga—as my teacher Pujari said of a balanced approach to practice, “not too tight, not too loose.”

Balancing Bow Pose: Strength and Mobility

Bow Pose or Dhanurasana a backbend practices here with a block.

Every single yoga pose embodies the qualities of firmness and softness. Each one presents a unique situation in which to explore equilibrium. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana) is just one example of each asana’s capacity to express strength, flexibility, grounding, and opening.

Dhanurasana stretches the entire front body from the ankles to the throat as it strengthens back muscles and helps to counter hunched “computer shoulders.” It stimulates abdominal organs and can relieve constipation, respiratory conditions, fatigue, and anxiety. Like all prone backbends, it strengthens the muscles of the back. Proceed with caution if you have high or low blood pressure, insomnia, back or neck injuries, or suffer from migraines.

Prepare for Bow Pose

Anjaneyasana, a preparatory pose for yoga practice

Because Dhanurasana stretches the entire front body, it is good to warm up with poses that stretch the quadriceps, hip flexors, and shoulders.  Lunge Pose (Anjaneyasana) (above) and Supported Fish Pose (Salamba Matsyasana) (below) are perfect warmups for Dhanurasana. In addition to its quad-stretching ability, Lunge Pose embodies grounding and buoyancy. Supported Fish Pose gently expands the front torso.

Supported Fish Pose or Salamba Matsyasana with yoga blocks.

How to Practice Dhanurasana: Start with a Baby Backbend

Getting started with a baby backbend

  1. Begin by lying face down on a nonskid yoga mat. I like to place a folded yoga blanket under my hip bones so that they don’t grind into the floor.
  2. Because grounding is the foundation for expansion, begin by establishing this relationship in a simpler pose. Clasp your hands behind you so that your hands rest on your buttocks. Roll your shoulders back and slide your shoulder blades down your back. Press your hip bones into your blanket or mat, allowing your legs and chest to rise up. Stretch back through your arms to expand your chest.
  3. Place your head and neck in a neutral position, neither throwing it back nor letting it sag down. Lengthen the back of your neck so that the front and back of your neck are stretching evenly. You will be looking at the floor.
  4. Take 5 to 10 breaths into your abdomen, allowing your body to lift a bit on your in-breath and release on your out-breath. Then relax down on the floor and turn your head sideways to rest. You can repeat this a few times if you like before moving to Bow Pose.

*Top article image and image below courtesy of Hugger Mugger Yoga Products

Now Practice Bow Pose 

Bow Pose or Dhanurasana a back bend pose in yoga.

  1. For Bow Pose, begin lying prone on the floor. Bend your knees, reach your hands back and grab your ankles or the tops of your feet. As in the pose above, ground your pelvis, allowing the legs and chest to rise.
  2. Breathe deeply into your abdomen, actively descending your abdomen on the inhalation as your upper body and legs rise. Look straight ahead so that the back of your neck stays long and your head feels neutral. Feel your body oscillating in rhythm with your breath.
  3. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths. Release your ankles and come to rest on your belly, turning your head to one side. Make sure to alternate turning your head to the other side each time you repeat the pose.
  4. If your hands don’t reach your feet yet, you can use a yoga strap to connect them. Place the strap under your legs in a “U” shape with the bottom of the “U” at your ankles and the sides of the “U” extending alongside your legs. The ends of the strap should be on either side of your pelvis or waist, depending on the length of your strap. Move into the pose as above, but instead of holding your ankles, grab the strap and draw your ankles toward your head. You can walk your hands back on the strap toward your ankles so that your arms are straight, like a bowstring.

Make It Playful 

Here’s a favorite variation:  While you’re in Dhanurasana, roll onto your right side, still holding your ankles. Take a few deep breaths and then roll onto your left side. Roll side to side, taking a few deep breaths on each side.

Strong and Supple

A fun, rolling version of a backbending yoga pose.

In Dhanurasana, your chest, abdomen, and quads must be supple while the abdomen is simultaneously strongly rooted. The arch of the bow (the front body) is flexible, while the string (the arms) is taut. In her wonderful book Downward Dogs & Warriors, Zo Newell recounts the story of shape-shifting Shiva and his archery lesson to Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita. She says Shiva’s bow is a “symbol of divine power that can become available to us if we prepare ourselves how to handle it.” Practiced with a balanced attitude, Dhanurasana can unleash your divine potential.

Reprinted with permission from Charlotte Bell/Hugger Mugger Yoga Products.
Charlotte Bell writer

Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.

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