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Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) - Issues and solutions

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:


Bow Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Neck and shoulders

            · Thoracic part of trunk

            · Lumbar part of trunk

            · Legs

            · Hands and wrists

            Pregnancy





Neck and shoulders

In this pose the head is held in a position such that the neck curve is a natural and comfortable continuation of the curve of the thoracic spine. As such, unless the neck is highly dysfunctional, there is unlikely to be any significant strain or stress in the neck area.

The arms are in a significant degree of extension at the shoulders and, for those with frozen shoulder type problems, this might be problematic – in which case, practising a bridge pose with the arms in a comfortable position would make a sensible alternative option. However, after the beginning stages of the pose, the arm position is created and maintained by leg muscle work. The effect is one of gentle traction in the shoulder joints and along the length of the arms, which allows for lots of muscle relaxation and encouragement of subtle and healthy increase of space in shoulder and arm joints.

The shoulder girdle itself is pulled into a position of adduction and downward rotation – again as a result of the leg muscle work. The strength of the pulls across the front of the shoulder girdle and upper chest that result is unlikely to be problematic unless one has an obvious difficulty in this area (e.g. a healing fractured collar bone): in such a case, cobra pose or bridge pose or simply lying prone might be sensible alternatives.


Thoracic part of trunk

Whether one holds the position or one moves in and out of it with the breath, Bow pose is very demanding of the heart, encouraging it to beat harder and faster. This is generally beneficial for the heart as it gives it a bit of a “work-out” – helping it to stay fit and strong. However, for those with an already compromised heart, there is some danger that the heart will be asked to do more than it can cope with. Such people should listen/feel to how their hearts are responding and should only practise the pose for short periods (if at all) until the heart has built up its strength and stamina again.

When holding this pose, the breath is heavily restricted. It is restricted in the upper and middle part of the lungs since the spine and ribs are held in an extreme position. It is also restricted somewhat in the lower part of the lungs by the weight of the body resting on the abdomen, so that the diaphragm has to work much harder when it contracts. This is generally beneficial for the muscles of respiration, which are either being stretched (which helps to improve their elasticity) or having to work hard against resistance (which strengthens them). However, some people may find this uncomfortable at first and feel that they can’t breath (cf. asthma) – such people need not hold the pose but can move in and out of it until they feel comfortable holding it.

To move into bow pose, one’s upper back does need to move into a back bend – leg muscles supply the work for moving into and holding the position so no strength in the upper back is required (cf. cobra practices without hands on floor). Without sufficient mobility in the upper back, as the legs pull the spine into a backbend, then the bending becomes concentrated in the lower back, which for some can be quite unhelpful (see below). However, many students who are stiff in the upper back with regard to back bending are similarly stiff in the lower back – for these people, practising bow might feel unsatisfying as they will have difficulty moving far into the pose, but it would be both safe and beneficial. Indeed, one of the great things about the bow pose is that the spine is pulled into a backbend (as opposed to contracting into a back bend (cf. cobra) which means there is traction and relaxation, which greatly facilitate a deeper movement of the spine into a backbend. This can make the pose a great boon to those who need to learn to extend (backbend) their spine more. Practising spinal mobilizing exercises (e.g. cat breathing type exercises) as preparation for the pose will be likely to increase how beneficial and satisfying the pose feels.

Some people are both stiff in their upper back (with regard to back-bending) and yet also highly mobile in their lower back or have a strong tendency to excessive lumbar lordosis (sway back). Such people should be very cautious about practising the bow pose. Personally, I would recommend such people not to practise bow pose until they have developed a good mobility in their upper back via other back bends (such as cobra pose and bridge pose). In absence of following this advice, discomfort (and then harm) is likely to be felt either in the lower back, in the front of the hip(s) or in one or both knee joints.


Lumbar part of trunk

The lumbar spine is pulled into a back bend via the strength of leg muscles – with the spine in traction and trunk muscles relaxed, the degree of the back bend can be very great. For those with stiff lower backs, a tendency to an overly flat lower back when standing, or for those who have strained their lower backs in a bending forwards position (cf. lifting a heavy weight from the floor), this is usually highly beneficial.

However, those with highly mobile lower backs or a tendency to excessive lumbar lordosis (sway back) should be aware this pose has a potential to pull their lower back so far into a back bend that discomfort or harm is caused. A lot of factors affect how far the pose takes the lower back into a backbend. One very significant issue is the length of the trunk vs. the length of the arms. The longer the trunk is in relation to the arms, the greater the back bend of the spine. If your arms are short enough (as are mine), one can even find that one’s back has to move into a significant degree of back bend just to get the hands to grasp the ankles (before any leg muscle work starts). A solution to this issue is to loop a towel around the ankles and then hold the towel instead of the ankles – in effect this approach increases the length of the arms. Another issue is how mobile one’s upper back is – the less mobile it is, the more the spinal back bending will be forced to occur in the lower back. As I have already said, I think the best solution to this issue is to practise upper back mobilizing practices, and omit practising bow pose until one has developed a good degree of upper back mobility. Another really important factor is how flexible are the hips with regard to extension (moving the leg backwards). This is perhaps a particularly important issue for those with a tendency to excessive lumbar lordosis – as the same muscles which flex the hip joints also tend to either pull the pelvic girdle forwards or pull the front of the lumbar spine forwards (relative to the direction of the trunk). In other words the less ability one’s legs have to move into extension, the more the pull supplied by the leg muscles will be directed into the spine and then such movement as the legs do make into extension will tend to pull the lumbar spine into deep extension. Where this is an issue, I strongly recommend not practising bow pose until one has developed a good degree of hip flexibility with regard to extension via practices like the lunges, and locust pose.

Obviously, since the weight of the body is more or less balanced on the abdomen in the various versions of bow pose, it is not a pose one would want to practise if one has had a recent abdominal operation or an otherwise distressed abdomen.


Legs

The legs are key to the bow pose. The quadriceps (front thigh muscles) contract to straighten the legs from a nearly fully flexed position and in the process pull the spine into a back bend and the legs into extension at the hips. Clearly, the stronger the quadriceps, the further the body is pulled into the bow pose and the greater the stamina in these muscles and the longer one is able to hold the pose. Those who are weak in these muscles will merely find they don’t move far into the pose, and indeed, while practice of the pose might not feel satisfying, it would be a beneficial way to develop strength and stamina in these muscles. A good long-term preparation exercise for developing such strength would be up-down kneeling and half squats – especially where one moves very slowly in and out of these positions.

A potentially problematic issue is lack of hip flexibility with regard to leg extension. As already discussed, if the legs will not move into extension, this means great back-bending forces occurring across the lower back. It also means more strain is likely to occur in the knee joint – this may cause discomfort and, if that is ignored, harm in the knee joint. The psoas muscles, if tight, will pull the lumbar spine into a deeper back bend (due to their attachment to the front of the lumbar spine) as hips are moved into extension. The iliacus muscles also have a similar effect via their attachment to the top front of the pelvic girdle, causing this to tilt forwards (relative to the position of the trunk). So, if one is tight in either of these muscles, it is important to practise stretching these muscles (e.g. using lunges) to develop more hip flexibility with regard to extension before practising Bow Pose.

The knees are potentially vulnerable in bow pose both because there are very large forces acting across them (due to the strongly working quadriceps) and because with the knees typically being semi-flexed they are at risk of mis-alignment issues. Because having the knees wider apart than hip-width and or angling the lower legs out to the side aids bringing the hands and ankles together, these are common approaches to getting one’s hands onto one’s ankles. However, it is really important to get the knee alignment correct before starting to contract one’s quadriceps – so care does need to be taken to bring the knees to hip-width apart with heels over the buttocks and to then keep this alignment when contracting the quadriceps. Those with tightness in either their psoas or iliacus muscles will notice they can apparently move deeper into the pose if they allow their knees to drift apart. This is so because having the legs abducted takes some of the tension out of the iliacus and psoas muscles, allowing more extension of the legs at the hips. But be warned that this takes the knee joints at least somewhat out of healthy alignment and is asking for knee strain or knee discomfort. Obviously, when discomfort in the knees is experienced in the pose, one should not continue with the practice of the pose.


Hands and wrists

The hands provide the connection between the legs and the top of the trunk – and without this connection there would be no traction and back-bending of the trunk. If the arms are long enough to reach the ankles comfortably, the hands are held in a fixed curved shape to act as hooks that the ankles can pull against. If the arms are not long enough for this, the hands actively grasp a towel. In either case, the flexors of the hands have to contract strongly for the duration of the pose. This can be tiring for these muscles and for some students may limit how long the pose can be practised. Also bear in mind that without counter-pose activity for this hand position at least some of the time (e.g. stretching fingers backwards), this can encourage a shortening in hand flexor muscles and, in time, make it hard to fully open the hands. The wrists by contrast have the benefit of being in a relaxed neutral position and being in gentle traction – which usually feels good even for somewhat distressed wrist joints (e.g. from problems like arthritis).


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

The bow pose isn’t a pose anyone would want to practise while pregnant – in this pose the weight of the body is balanced on the abdomen, which is obviously not a good thing to do when pregnant. Alternative back-bending poses that one might want to consider are : sitting fish pose (from sitting, lean backwards and place hands on floor and then lift chest) or standing cobra (from standing, clasp hands behind back and draw hands downwards while rolling shoulders backwards and then lifting arms away from one’s back, encouraging the chest to expand forwards). Other options to consider would be things like cat breathing (from all fours or standing cat) and sitting with a chair in front and resting hands and head on the chair in such a way that encourages back bending of the upper back.

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