Urdhva Dhanurasana (sometimes known as Chakrasana), is popularly referred to as Wheel Pose, though the literal Sanskrit translation is “upward-facing bow.”
It’s one of those staple poses that you picture when someone tells you they do physical yoga. In the pose, the whole body looks like a beautiful rainbow, and some seasoned yoga practitioners are even able to stand directly up right out of it.
It’s a rich pose that has numerous benefits and can be a lot of fun to do, but most of us lack the necessary shoulder flexibility — and strength — to be able to press our arms all the way to straight.
This means rather than looking like an upward-facing bow, we end up looking a bit more like what Bay Area yoga teacher Marisa LaValette jests is, “an upward-facing rectangle.”
Fortunately, we can still get many of the pose’s benefits with our elbows and knees bent.
If we remember the over-arching (pun-intended) goal is to lengthen the spine and open the chest, there are a number of creative ways we can use props or alternative shapes to achieve those same effects without compromising our lower back (or our ego).
Wheel Pose falls into the category of postures known as backbends, which are poses performed with the spine in extension.
This family of poses is said to be uplifting because they open up your heart and chest, helping you breathe deeper. They’re also believed to stimulate the adrenal glands.
Chakrasana, or Urdhva Dhanurasana, also offers a deep stretch for the chest and shoulder muscles, as well as the hip flexors. It also strengthens the hamstrings and spinal extensors.
Beyond that, there are other science-backed benefits of Wheel Pose.
- Improves spinal flexibility. One study found that incorporating Urdhva Dhanurasana and similar backbends into a yoga routine significantly improved the spinal flexibility of the participants, all of whom were over 50 years old (
- Increases strength. In just 12 weeks, one study’s participants showed significant improvements in muscular strength after practicing Wheel Pose and other Hatha yoga poses (
- May improve blood glucose levels among people with type 2 diabetes. A recent study found that backbends reduced hemoglobin A1c levels in people with diabetes (
Wheel Pose stimulates the breath, opens the chest and shoulders, improves spinal flexibility, improves strength, and may even improve blood glucose levels and adrenal function.
- Lie on your back with your feet hip-width apart and bend your knees.
- Reach your arms overhead and bend your elbows, placing your palms flat on the floor next to your ears, with your fingers pointing forward.
- On an inhale, lift your hips.
- Exhale and pause.
- Inhale, press into your hands, and try to pause with the crown of your head on the floor with your elbows bent. If pressing your arms straight causes strain in your neck or lower back, stay here.
- Straighten your arms as much as you can.
- Straighten your legs as much as you comfortably can.
- Some people find it helpful to walk their feet back toward their head. Check in with your lower back after any adjustments you make.
- To come down, tuck your chin slightly, bend your elbows, and return to the crown of your head.
- Lower all the way down onto the back of your head, and lower your arms by your sides.
.There are a few ways to make Wheel Pose more accessible if it’s challenging for you.
Modifications away from the wall
The most effective modifications are often done against a wall with props, but if you’re limited in what props you have access to, there are a few adjustments you can make without any, or with just one piece of equipment.
The most accessible modification may be working on the preparation step of lifting onto the crown of the head
and not pressing your arms to straight.
You can also try using a strap wrapped around both arms, just above your elbows, keeping it shoulder-width apart. This helps keep the shoulders in correct alignment.
You can also use a strap at the top of the thighs, which can prevent lower back compression. When in the pose, notice if you’re pressing out into the strap. Instead, work to loosen the strap by drawing your inner thighs down toward the floor.
You can hold a block between your inner thighs. This also helps prevent lower back compression, but by targeting the inner legs. Like the above modification, work to hold your block as you lift into the pose. It’s a bit harder than it sounds, but your lower back will thank you!
Wall modifications with multiple props
For tight shoulders:
- Set two blocks up horizontally against the wall. It helps to tip them, so they’re angled and hooked against your baseboard for stability. If you do not have access to a wall with a baseboard, slide your mat up the wall slightly, like a tail.
- Place a shoulder-wide strap around your upper arms and place it right at your elbow.
- Lie in between the blocks, bend your knees, and take your arms overhead.
- Turn your upper arms out, pointing your fingers to the side of the room. This exaggerates the external rotation necessary in the upper arms.
- Now complete steps 3–11 as listed above in the “how-to” section of this article.
For a tight lower back:
- Place two blocks on their face (low setting), with the short end against a wall. Place your feet on them like a pair of platform shoes.
- Lie down with your toes facing the wall and your head toward the center of the room.
- Bend your knees and step your feet onto the blocks.
- Complete steps 2–11 with your feet on the blocks as listed in the “how-to” section of this article.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Bridge Pose is an important first step in setting up for Wheel Pose. If you’re restricted in reaching overhead for any reason, such as an injury or limited immobility, keeping your arms down by your sides can be a great alternative chest opener.
- Lie onto your back.
- Bend your knees with your feet on the floor and separate your feet and legs hip-width apart.
- As you inhale, lift your pelvis.
- Roll your upper arms underneath you, and either interlace your fingers or grab the outer edges of your mat.
- Stay for 8 breaths.
- On an exhale, come down slowly.
Supported Fish Pose Variation (Matsyasana)
Sometimes the challenge is not your flexibility, but your strength. Doing Supported Fish Pose on the blocks with your arms reaching overhead is a nice way to open the shoulders and chest, without it being a weight-bearing pose.
- Set up two blocks at the upper half of your mat. Generally, the block closest to your feet is on the medium setting (sitting on one long side), and the top block is on the highest setting (sitting on one short end, vertically).
- Lie down with your shoulder blades directly on the first block and the back of your skull on the top block.
- Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor hip-width apart.
- Straighten your legs and reach through them actively.
- Reach your arms over your chest toward the ceiling and slowly begin taking them toward the back of the room, in line with your ears.
- You can remain in the position with your arms overhead, or move your arms up and down dynamically.
- After 10 breaths, lower your arms by your sides.
- Bend your knees and roll to one of your sides.
The most beneficial poses in yoga are often the ones with the most risks. As such, what really makes them advanced is not so much the physical requirements, but the level of care you should take when doing them.
It may be best to stick to one of the above listed variations if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- lower back pain
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- high blood pressure
- shoulder injuries or instability, like a history of dislocation
Please note that deep backbends, or any poses with excessive spinal extension, are generally contraindicated after the second trimester of pregnancy, or once you begin showing, as it may contribute to diastasis recti (
Those with low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, high blood pressure, or shoulder instability and injury should avoid Wheel Pose, as well as people who are in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.
Sometimes we get caught up in the way a pose looks, when we may be better served focusing on how it feels.
While the full expression of Urdhva Dhanurasana can be uplifting and expanding, if you’re in pain or compromising your body, you’re likely straying from the real purpose of any backbend, which is to access your heart.
Fortunately, yoga props and variations can help make Wheel Pose more accessible, and they can keep the practice exciting and interesting, too!