Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
Bow pose, known as dhanurasana in Sanskrit, is a backbending posture that strengthens the muscles of the lower back and upper legs as it lengthens the chest and abdominal muscles in a powerful stretch. Named because it resembles the shape of an archery bow, the pose channels the powerful energy of the yogic “spiritual warrior.”
Internally, bow pose benefits the respiratory, abdominal, and reproductive organs by stretching the abdominal cavity and increasing circulation. According to traditional lore, the pose frees nervous energy in the thorax and cervix, helping alleviate digestive and reproductive ailments. Although the pose can be therapeutic, this powerful backbend is active, not restorative.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms extended by your sides, palms facing up. Bring your knees and feet together. Rest your chin on the mat.
- Bend your knees and drop your feet toward your buttocks. Take hold of the outsides of your ankles with your hands. Point or flex/splay your toes.
- Inhale. Lift your head, chest, legs, and feet up simultaneously. Press the bottom corners of your shoulder blades toward your heart center to open your shoulders and chest. Lift your thighs off the mat, shooting your feet up into the air. Keep your arms straight.
- Draw your knees toward each other. To protect your joints, never let your knees drift further than hip distance away from each other.
- Keep your back and arm muscles relaxed. Instead, let your gluteal muscles do the heavy lifting. Press your legs back against your hands to cultivate a natural lift.
- Gaze softly at a point in front of you, slightly above eye level. Lengthen the back of your neck, creating space around the ears.
- Breath and hold the pose. With each inhale, hold your position. With each exhale, deepen the backbend slightly. Keep your body still. Rocking slightly with the rhythm of your breath is natural, but keep the motion controlled and subtle.
- Exhale. Relax the leg muscles and lower your head, chest, legs, and feet to the mat simultaneously. Release your hands and feet to the mat.
Tips, Photos and Videos for Beginners
Modifications and Props
Cushion your hips with a folded blanket. If you have a tendency to rock back and forth in the pose, or if you find the pose uncomfortable on your hip bones, place a folded blanket under your hips in step one (above).
Keep your knees together with a strap. In bow pose, it is both difficult to keep your knees together and to check if you’re keeping your knees together. Solve both problems by securing a belt or tying a strap around your knees in step one (above). Secure the strap so that the diameter is, at maximum, hip distance. When you lift up, you’ll be able to feel how tight or loose the strap is (for one) and you won’t be able to open your knees further than hip distance (for two).
If you can’t hold your legs, hold some straps. If tight quadriceps, tight hip flexors, or a stiff back is keeping you from taking hold of your ankles in step two (above), secure a strap around each of your ankles before step one. Take hold of these straps, instead of your feet, in step two.
One Sided Bow Pose (Dhanurasana, Variation I). If your body is tight and can’t enter the full pose without pain or resistance, this one sided variation warms up your muscles gradually. In step one (above), prop yourself halfway up by placing your left arm in front of you, elbow bent, palm planted on the mat. Press your left leg into the mat firmly as well. Point the toes of your left foot and press the top of your foot into the mat. Go through steps two through eight with just your right side. Then, switch arms and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Easy Bow Pose (Saral Dhanurasana). This gentle variation takes the pressure off the glutes, making the pose easier to hold for a long period. It also requires less flexibility in the back muscles to practice. In step three (above), raise you head, chest, and feet, but not your thighs. Instead, keep your thighs pressed firmly against the mat. To protect your back, scoop your pubis towards your navel to bring your tailbone down onto the mat. (This pelvic tilt happens naturally when you lift the thighs in full bow pose.) Skip step five.
Side Bow Pose (Parshva Dhanurasana). Some experienced yogis can roll into side bow pose from bow pose. Although attempting this challenging transition can be a fun mental and physical challenge, it can also be dangerous for your body if you struggle at all in bow pose. To practice side bow pose from bow pose, inhale and roll your weight to the right, coming onto your right side, in step seven (above). Rest your head against the mat. Inhale and come back to center. Exhale and roll to the left side. Inhale and come back to center.
Bow pose strengthens the muscles of the lower back and upper legs as it lengthens the chest and abdominal muscles in a powerful stretch. Bow pose is a physically strenuous pose that builds muscle and flexibility quickly. Bow pose targets, in particular, the gluteal muscles, which hold the weight of the body.
Because breathing is constricted in bow pose, the posture builds respiratory resilience that benefits the practitioner on and off the yoga mat. For this reason and others, in poses like bow pose, where it is actually sometimes easier to hold the breath than breath laboriously, it is incredibly important to breath as you practice.
Prolific yogi Swami Satyananda Saraswati attributes a myriad of benefits, apart from strength and flexibility training, to bow pose. He claims that the pose massages the abdominal organs and balances secretions from the pancreas and adrenal glands. This relieves the symptoms of digestive disorders like chronic constipation and helps alleviate menstrual cramps. Saraswati also found that the pose releases tension in the cervix and thorax.
Do not attempt bow pose if you:
- have heart problems.
- have a hernia.
- have colitis.
- have a peptic or duodenal ulcer.
- have a lower back or neck injury.
- can’t sleep.
Bow pose closely mimics other backbending postures, namely bridge pose (setu bandhasana sarvangasana) and camel pose (ustrasana). The benefits of these three poses are almost identical and, although they fall just short of being interchangeable, they work on the same muscles in the same way. A flow that incorporates all three will be specific, but not diverse.
A forward fold is necessary after an intense back bending pose like bow pose. A seated forward fold, like prostration pose (naman pranamasana) or seated forward bend (paschimottanasana), is a perfect counterpose for bow.
Glutes. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. In bow pose, the gluteus maximus does the heavy lifting. For optimal results, avoid clenching the buttocks as you lift up. The gluteal muscles should be firm in the pose, but not hard.
Hip adductors. The adductor muscles are located in the inner thighs. These muscles are responsible for leg movement away from the center of the body as, for example, during a star jump or split. Drawing the knees towards each other, as your body naturally works to bring them apart, strengthens the adductor muscles in bow pose.
Hamstrings. The hamstring muscles are the three long muscles that run along the back of the thigh. They extend the hip, flex the knee, and rotate the lower leg. Bow pose engages the hamstring muscles, adding strength and durability. For best results, be sure to internally rotate the thighs to stretch the inner hamstrings as well.
Abdominals. The abdominal muscles are located in the lower belly, between the ribs and the pelvis. They control the tilt of the pelvis and the curve of the lower spine. Bow pose works the rectus abdominus (your six pack) in particular. Strengthening the rectus abdominus and the erector spinae stabilizes the spine and improves posture.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Back bending poses, like bow pose, build muscle in the erector spinae.
Pectorals. The pectoralis major and minor muscles connect the front walls of the chest with the upper arm and shoulders. These muscles are responsible for drawing the arms towards the body. The arm position in bow pose lengthens the pecs, building longer muscles that lend to improved posture.
Deltoids. The deltoid muscles form the rounded contour of the outer shoulders. They prevent dislocation of the arm during heavy lifting. Bow pose stretches the deltoid muscles, since the arms reach behind the body, opening the chest.
Forearm flexors. The flexor muscles are located in the superficial anterior of the forearm. They control flexion and rotation of the wrist. Exercises that resist flexion, like wrist curls, strengthen these muscles. Bow pose strengthens the flexor carpi radialis, the flexor carpi ulnaris, the pronator teres, and the palmaris longus of the forearm.