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For a long time, one of my least favorite poses was Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). I have tight shoulders and hip flexors, and it seemed nearly impossible to move my body in the way the pose asks me.
What I later learned was what made Bow Pose really hard for me was being prone. Everything changed when I figured out that I could practice the same shape in poses that were less challenging for my body—Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose). If you look at those three poses lined up alongside one another (as we did above), it showcases their similarities. Bridge Pose is Bow Pose on its back. Camel Pose is Bow Pose on its knees.
It’s your relationship to gravity, not the actual shape, that changes. In Bow Pose, you’re fighting against gravity. In Camel Pose, you’re working with it. And in Bridge Pose, even though you are resisting gravity, you get to press into your feet and use the strength of your legs to make the shape. Once I saw the relationship, I could then use my muscle memory of those other postures—along with practice and consistency—to make Bow Pose more accessible.
Start with Bridge Pose, which is the simplest and probably the most commonly practiced of the three shapes because of how available it is to most bodies and how little risk of injury there is. From there, as your shoulders and hip flexors stretch and you learn how to make the shape without collapsing in your lower back, you can progress to Camel and Bow Poses. Keep in mind, the key to protecting your back in backbends is to use your legs and buttocks as much as possible. This is important! If your legs are sore after backbends, it means you are doing it correctly. If your lower back is sore, it means your legs didn’t work enough.
How to: Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Make sure your feet are hip-distance apart and your heels are directly under your knees. Move your arms next to your sides and tuck your shoulder blades up into your back. Take a deep breath in and on your exhalation press strongly down into your heels and lift your entire back body off the floor. Scoot your shoulders even more under you and either interlace your fingers together or reach for the ankles with your hands. If someone were to look at you from above they wouldn’t be able to see your arms because they are under your body.
Breathe in and out and continue to press down into your outer upper arms to lift your chest. Press your feet down to lift your hips higher. Your legs will want to turn out and spread wider than hip-distance; to counteract this, move your inner thighs down toward the floor and put more weight in the inner edges of your feet. Keep your legs parallel to one another to avoid compressing your sacrum and lower back. Stay here for 5 long breaths.
Come out of the pose: On your next exhalation, release your interlaced hands and slowly lower your body down. Attempt to land exactly where you began rather than letting your weight shift toward your legs. Repeat this pose a few times.
Variations: If your shoulders are strong and tight, rather than interlacing your hands, grab the sides of your mat, turn your arms inside out so your biceps are facing the ceiling and your triceps are against the floor. When your arms are wider in this fashion, you have more room to lift yourself up and move your shoulder blades toward each other.
If you’re flexible and can keep your knees over your heels, try moving your hands closer to your feet and see if you can get your palms under the soles of your feet and press down to lift your hips higher. Bridge Pose with the hands under your feet is exactly like Camel Pose.
How to: Start in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) with your knees and shins on the floor and sitting on your heels. Come up onto your knees and put your hands on your hips. Just like Bridge Pose, have your feet and thighs parallel to one another and hip-distance apart. As in Bridge Pose, reach your arms behind you and interlace your hands. On your next inhalation, press down into the tops of your feet and shins and keep the hips above your knees, look up toward the ceiling, and elongate the front of your body. The front body goes up and the back of your body goes down. In other words, you are lifting up from your pubic bone to your navel to your sternum. Make sure you move the flesh of your buttocks down to protect your lower back.
On your exhalation, reach your arms back and up. This will probably feel counterintuitive because your hands will want to go down to find the feet. Once you’ve lifted as much as you can, reach your hands toward your feet and put your palms on your soles. Inhale and exhale, continuing to lift the front body up. If you can manage getting the heels of your hands over the heels of your feet, you will find you have more leverage to press down into your hands to make your chest lift higher. Once your chest has fully opened, if it feels OK for you, let your head lean back. Continue to work in the pose and breathe smoothly as you stay here for 3 or 4 breaths.
Come out of the pose: Pause and move your attention to what is in contact with the mat. Press your shins and the tops of your feet down and use the strength of your legs and buttocks to bring yourself back to kneeling position. Slowly bring your head up last. Sit back on your heels and breathe. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
Variation: If your shoulders are tight and you can’t bring your hands together behind you, grab a yoga strap or a belt. The loop needs to be at least as wide as the fronts of your shoulders. Take the belt behind you and slide your hands through it until the belt is on your wrists. As you did in bridge, turn your arms inside out so the palms are facing the sides of the room. Press out into the belt.
How to: Lie down with the front of your body on the floor. Your legs (same as Bridge and Camel Poses) are hip-distance apart and parallel. Bend your elbows in front of you and place your head down onto the tops of the hands. Stretch your legs back as far as you can. Press down into the tops of your feet and lift your knees up. Notice how these actions make the tailbone move down into the floor and the abdomen lift up away from the floor. Breathing smoothly and evenly, lift your head and reach your arms back behind you. If possible, interlace your fingers together and lift your arms up and back. Breathe. When your body gives you the green light, bend your knees so the soles of the feet are facing the ceiling. Reach your arms back behind you and hold the fronts of your ankles (it’s less difficult to hold the tops of feet). Breathe in and on your next exhalation, strongly press your feet into your hands and notice how this lifts the front of your body up. If you lean forward and let your chest go down, your legs will go up higher. If you press your feet more into your hands, the chest will go higher. Both are correct. In the classical version of the pose, the shoulders and the feet are on the same line. Breathe smoothly and evenly for 3 or 4 breaths.
Come out of the pose: Resist the temptation exit the pose quickly. Instead, try to let go of both your feet at the same time. Rather than collapsing out of the pose, try to stay up for a moment with your hands alongside your feet and feel how much the backs of your legs are working. Slowly move your legs back down onto the floor behind you, straight and hip distance apart. Bring your arms back in front of you and once again bend your elbows and place your hands down under your forehead and pause and recover. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
After your Bow Pose, just for fun, flip back onto your back and repeat Bridge Pose, taking the variation noted above with your hands closer to your feet.
See also: How to Make Backbends More Enjoyable
About our contributor
Jenny Aurthur started practicing at YogaWorks in Santa Monica in the early ’90s. She left her soul-crushing job in the music industry after taking 200-hour yoga teacher training. YogaWorks relocated Jenny to New York City, where she taught classes, led teacher trainings, and mentored teachers. She currently teaches privately in-person and online.