January 12, 2012

Intelligent backbends part 2: Now you might have to think. ~ Jules Mitchell

Recently, I wrote about the lower extremities in urdhva dhanurasana, aka backbend, upward facing bow, or wheel.  That article is here.

My main argument was to use less push, less intensity, less “thinking”.  But of course, there are two sides to every story, so I have chosen to take the other side today.  Since we had some requests to discuss the shoulder actions in the same pose, I will look at that but argue that the less push and intensity might actually require more “thinking”.

Choose your side.  Whatever works.  I love you either way.

To explore any pose in a more observable fashion, I always look for a pose that requires similar skills but has a less complicated relationship to gravity.  I like to look at what is happening in a student’s shoulders in Adho Mukha Svanasana to inform me about how her shoulder’s will function in Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward facing bow).  Essentially, the actions are the same.

– The shoulders externally rotate

– The triceps powerfully straighten the arms

– The scapulae must abduct and move, with a purpose, from the back body toward the front body.

The simultaneous performance of these actions (and many others), combined with being upside down and backwards,  is what has many students depending on what is familiar and unable to process the scale of intricate actions – just the right amount of each, not too much and not too little.

What does that mean?

It could mean so many things. But try on that you just rely on your everyday movements rather than seeking and searching for new muscle fiber activation.

The anatomy

In many of us, the upper trapezius is over developed.  Inheritely, this isn’t a problem.   Until you look further (thus “think” more) and learn that the serratus anterior is the antagonist to the upper trapezius.  This means that while the upper traps are working, the sarratus isn’t.   If you overuse the upper traps in downward dog, chances are you will still overuse them when you are upside down and backwards.

That is why you have to think.

First, learn where you serratus anterior is and what exactly it does.  It is a broad muscle that begins underneath the shoulder blades along the medial border.  It’s muscle fibers travel along the inside of the shoulder blade and branch out in a finger like manner, attaching the front sides of the ribs. 

To feel the serratus anterior working, try forearm plank.  Push the floor away from you so you can firmly work the shoulder blades and rib cage together.  Don’t worry about rounding your back for this variation, just do what you need to do to feel this muscle that hugs the rib cage engage.  Notice if you feel the upper trapezius muscles work less.

Now that you’ve felt the serratus anterior working, it’s time to turn onto your back.  Lifting up from the floor into a backbend still requires you to recruit the serratus.  The shoulders joint needs the support of the shoulder blades.

Try this variation:

Here you can teach the body the kinesiology of the upward facing bow while using the block to give you some feedback. The block will help you keep the shoulder blades pushing toward the front of the body.  Keep focusing on doing less work in the upper trapezius, thereby freeing the neck, and more work in the serratus anterior to give the chest a good lift. Stay here for about 1 minute.  Repeat.

Now you’re ready to try the full pose.  I always recommend working with a teacher to find the right variation for you.  To be brutally honest, most of us need some sort of support in this pose. (Please don’t hate!)

Here are a variation that works for me.



Jules Mitchell, ERYT 500 lives her yoga in Hermosa Beach, CA and has an extensive private client business focusing mainly on injury recovery and therapeutics students new to yoga  and well schooled yogis, including teachers.  She is a biomechanics graduate student and leads Yoga Anatomy courses nationally for yoga teachers.  Jules is also the director of the South Bay Yoga Conference, a mentor for Leeann Carey Yoga and you can contact her here.


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