|Downward-Facing Dog to Upward Bow
by Barbara Benagh
Twisting the Torso
Once you are back in Downward Dog, stay mindful of a few pointers that are crucial to the coming sequence. First, keep pushing your hips firmly away from your shoulders. Second, keep your shoulders extended and aligned as you have practiced. Third, don't forget to breathe. And fourth, remember this is a dance: Have fun!
In Downward Dog, turn your left hand farther to the left and strongly root it into the floor. Though turning your hand is not absolutely necessary, it will help you achieve the shoulder rotation you'll eventually need to move into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Next, raise your right leg, bending the knee and swinging it up and behind you so your right hip lifts and turns your abdomen with it, beginning the spin of the belly and spine that will eventually take you to Urdhva Dhanurasana. But let's not focus on the backbend just yet. First, enjoy this fabulous spinal twist.
Relax your leg and let it hang, allowing its passive weight to tug on your right hip and roll your abdomen farther to the right. Focus more on letting go than on trying, adopting a go-with-the-flow attitude that invites a sense of curiosity as you move off the beaten path. Keep extending back through your hips as you use your breath to soften the muscles along your spine and make its movement more fluid. As before, explore gently moving the spine to help release holding patterns. Try to feel which part of your back is tightest and give it extra attention, "sweet-talking" it with your breath.
When you have rotated the spine as deeply as possible, lift onto your right fingertips to create even more room for the hips and chest to turn. You can also deepen the twist by bending your left knee and lifting up on tiptoe with the left foot. With these actions, you can bend more deeply at the hip and probably coax a bit more movement in the spine until, finally, your whole torso revolves, your right foot hovers just off the floor, your heart faces up, and you can look under your arm.
All the while, continue to move your hips away from the shoulders. Of course, the deeper the twist, the farther your torso arcs backward, which can bring up the fear of falling. Consciously feel any fear you may experience, strongly root your hand and foot, and release into the twist instead of focusing on the impending backbend. I encourage you to try this much of the sequence several times to get comfortable with hanging backward.
When you feel ready to take the right leg the whole way to the floor, take a breath in and extend your hips strongly away from the shoulders; on your exhalation, let the twist flip your leg all the way over. As you do this, your right hand will leave the floor.
Now comes the most critical part of the flow. A common response at this point is to windmill your right arm to the floor by your side. Instead, rest your right arm by your ear. Don't rush through this position; settle in where you are for a moment. Make sure your breathing is steady, slowing it down and extending the exhalation if necessary. Next, position your feet parallel with each other, a little wider than hip-width apart. Then put your mind in your belly and once again lift the pelvis, feeling it pull the weight of the torso away from the arm and elongate the shoulder joint.
The shoulders are critically important in this transition. Unless you maintain length in the joints as you approach the backbend, your shoulders will lock up and stop you from completing the movement. Actually, going no farther than the twist is probably your best choice if you have chronic shoulder injuries, a tendency to dislocate your shoulder, or cannot yet lift into Urdhva Dhanurasana from the floor. If, for whatever reason, you decide that going farther is beyond your abilities, simply enjoy the twist for a few breaths, releasing into the deepest rotation possible. When you're ready to come out of the pose, roll your chest back around to the left, pivot your left foot forward so the toes face the hand, and gently bring your right arm and leg back over to Downward Dog.
If you do feel ready to progress to Urdhva Dhanurasana, wait until the spinal twist has deepened as much as possible. Then bend your knees and again push your hips strongly away from the chest to elongate the shoulders. You may have noticed that I keep repeating the instruction to move your hips away from the shoulders. That's because it is the single most important maneuver throughout this whole vinyasa and helps to avoid stressing the shoulders. The length in the shoulder that results from extending the hips away from the shoulders frees you up to rotate your upper spine deeply to the right and reach overhead to place your right hand on the floor in Urdhva Dhanurasana.
If you couldn't get enough extension through the left shoulder to pivot into Urdhva Dhanurasana on your first attempt, try again, this time more strongly pushing your hips away from your shoulders, bending the left elbow, and dipping the left shoulder nearer to the floor. Don't forget to stay focused on steady breathing. If you feel as though you can't create enough extension and rotation to complete the flip, return to Downward Dog: Inhale as you rotate your chest to the left, pivot your left foot forward, and exhale to gently roll your right arm and leg back to Downward Dog. Don't lead with the right leg: It won't work! You've got to start from the chest and let the twist reverse you back to Downward Dog.
However, if you've succeeded in placing your right hand on the floor, you'll need to pick up your left hand and pivot it so the fingertips face your feet. Adjust both hands so they are positioned properly–shoulder-width apart and with fingers pointing toward the feet–and settle into Urdhva Dhanurasana.
This backbend requires strength, flexibility, and surrender. Take a moment to establish a steady breath, with the mouth closed and the exhalation strong. Though you will not linger in Urdhva Dhanurasana, the pose is too important to glance over. Don't be surprised if you find Urdhva Dhanurasana approached this way easier than when you push up from the floor–and thus a better opportunity than usual to fine-tune the pose.
Consciously root your hands and feet to the floor, balancing the weight equally between them. Draw your front groins into the hips, move the inner thighs back, strongly ground your heels, and root the balls of your feet. Move your inner armpits toward the back shoulders to rotate your inner arms toward your ears, and widen your upper back as you extend your arms toward the balls of the hands. If you have difficulty widening your upper back, roll your shoulders back toward your tailbone and reaffirm the rotation of your inner arms. Although you're now upside down, can you feel that these are exactly the same actions you used in Downward Dog?
Exhale and let the chest bloom outward and upward to elongate the shoulders again; at the same time, if you're quite flexible be careful not to force your shoulders too far forward into hyperextension. Continue to breathe steadily as you release any tense muscles along your spine and adapt to the rich spinal arch this asana requires. You can continue to explore moving the spine as you did in Downward Dog, accompanying every movement with mindful breathing to enhance your liquidity and ease. Don't lose your connection with the internal rhythm of the breath. Yes, even in an asana as strong as this backbend, there's room to dance!
Whenever you're ready, begin your return trip to Downward Dog. If you have paid attention to the flow, you will, like Hansel and Gretel, have laid down breadcrumbs to mark your path. Returning to Downward Dog is simply a step-by-step reversal of the flow you followed to arrive in Urdhva Dhanurasana, and it's easier than you might think.
The most common mistake is trying to throw the right leg up and over. Instead, stay calm and methodical. Turn your left hand toward the right hand and press the left arm into the floor as you strongly inhale and roll your chest to the left, bringing the right hand off the floor. Pause and feel how the spine is now rotating to the left. Just pivot your left foot forward to face your hands, and the action of the twist will allow you to softly bring your right arm and leg back into Downward Dog. It's as simple as that.
Complete the vinyasa by doing the same sequence to the right. Explore the vinyasa, repeating it several times, first fast, then slow; even play with it by flipping your way across the room, rolling over and over in the same direction. Maintaining your playfulness and sense of adventure contribute to the sense of flow and liberate you from the "stiffness" that too much technique can sometimes impose on an asana. After all, hatha yoga transforms us not just through the discipline of form but also through the sheer joy of conscious movement, the dance that can break down habits and illusions. Developing the attitude of a dancer, an explorer of movement, means traveling to your own inner rhythm. It means remaining open to change and bravely going off the beaten track if that's where inspiration takes you–in other words, joining the adventure taken by all the greatest yogis.
• Tones Spine
• Massages and strengthens abdominal organs
• Makes shoulders more flexible
• Strengthens arms and legs Builds endurance Contraindications
• Tendency to dislocate shoulders Chronic shoulder injuries
• Unmanaged high or low blood pressure
• Herniated lumbar discs
• Positional vertigo