Our breath is one of our greatest teachers in Yoga. When you find yourself in a challenging asana, tune in to your breath. Is it short or long? Quick or steady? Has it stopped entirely?
Ujjayi breath, a central part of Yoga asana practice, is an even inhale and exhale through the nose with a slightly contracted throat so that the breath is audible (like the sound of the ocean). Ujjayi breath focuses and strengthens the mind while creating internal heat to purify the body. When we push ourselves too far or practice without mindfulness, the breath becomes labored, uneven or quick. That is our cue to back up, reset our intention and come back to the essence of our Yoga practice – to master the mind so that we can gain freedom from it.
There is no better asana to learn to listen to ujjayi breath than urdhva dhanurasana, upward facing bow or wheel pose. This challenging pose opens the entire front of the spine while lengthening through the diaphragm and lungs. If you grunt or hold your breath getting into urdhva dhanurasana, that is a lesson from ujjayi breath. Pay yourself and the asana respect by asking a fellow yogi to assist you or working with setu bandhasana, bridge pose, instead.
Some people find this pose emotionally difficult because fully opening of the front of the body can feel vulnerable. But being vulnerable (a part of our natural range of emotions) doesn’t mean you will be victimized; it means you are available and present. Not a bad way to live. Here, ujjayi breath is your guide once again. If you are overcome with feelings of vulnerability in this pose, simply direct your ujjayi breath to anahata, your heart chakra, to guide opening and release.
Asana outline: Urdhva dhanurasana
Urdhva dhanurasana from the ground up
This is a pose to work up to – one to approach after you have established a regular asana practice and warmed up your body with surya namaskar, sun salutations, standing poses, and inversions. Setu bandhasana is a great pose to prepare your body for urdhva dhanurasana.
Like all asanas, practice urdhva dhanurasana without pain. If you continuously work at or beyond your edge, you are letting your ego lead your practice and can easily injure your body. Practice two steps away from your edge so that you are kind to yourself and your breath can share its beautiful wisdom.
Common trouble spots
Feet not aligned under knees
If your feet are too close to your buttocks you can put strain on your spine. When you set up, place your feet directly beneath your knees for the greatest stability. You can look at the alignment to begin and eventually you will learn to feel the proper placement. Once you have found the correct alignment, keep your feet in the same place throughout the entire pose.
Elbow and hands out of alignment
Your elbows should be facing directly up toward the ceiling, not pointing out to the sides or crowding your face. Be sure your fingers are pointing toward your heels or slightly out toward the outside edge of your mat (see our tip above for tight shoulders).
Feet wider than hips
Your feet, as an anchor for this pose, should align directly with your hips and under your knees. This provides the most solid foundation for the pose and allows you to find your full expression.