POSE OF THE MONTH: Bow Pose
A few prep poses and some creative cueing can help your students move into Bow Pose joyfully and safely.
Backbends can be so rewarding for some students; for others, they just bring anxiety and pain. How can you help your students prepare for, and feel safe doing, a deep backbend, like Bow Pose? Let’s explore a few prep poses and some cueing that will ensure that your students approach Bow, mindfully—in a way that will build their self-confidence while honoring their bodies.
Main Elements of Bow
Core strength (specifically transverse abdominus, i.e., lower abs)
Adductor (inner thigh) strength
Most Challenging Elements
Avoiding compression in the low back
Keeping adductors strong to avoid knees “winging” out to the sides
Begin class with the Standing or Supine Warm-Up and a few Sun Salutations. As you move the class into Mountain 2, sprinkle these elements throughout class to help everyone get ready for the strength and flexibility Bow Pose requires.
Awaken the Shoulders
Be sure to include Chest Expansion to prepare the shoulders for the work ahead. Hands separated (holding an imaginary beach ball, or a real yoga block) allows the same action and sensations we’ll experience later in Bow.
Build Core Strength
Focus on inner thigh strength by cueing a Mountain–Chair Flow using the Core Ball in between the thighs (higher than the knees). This brings awareness and awakens the strength of the inner thighs (the adductors). We’ll need this strength later to keep our knees from winging out to the sides.
Bring awareness and strength to the lower abdominals by cueing neutral hips in Warrior Poses and Lunges. For most students, finding a neutral pelvic girdle in these poses requires conscious abdominal work. A cue that works well is to pretend the pelvic girdle is a bowl filled with water. Invite your students to find a position that keeps the water from spilling out; this means the hips will sit level to the floor instead of tilting one way or another.
Practice Camel Pose (standing, kneeling, or both), and emphasize engaging the lower abdominals to protect and lengthen the lower back. If a student feels any pinching or discomfort in the lower back in Camel Pose, Bow Pose will likely not be the best choice for practice today.
Explore the Extensions
Dancer Pose is an excellent pose to test the waters one side at a time. Cue creating a strong foundation and then shift the weight into the right foot. Bending the left knee, reach back with the left arm to hold onto the inside of the left ankle (avoid the foot here and take advantage of the strength the ankle provides). If the shoulder will allow it, stretch the right arm overhead for added balance. Check in with the adductors: are they engaged? Both knees should still be in neutral alignment. Lifting through the abdominals, begin to press the ankle into the hand and hand into the ankle. Allow the hip and shoulder to extend back. If this is comfortable (pain-free), students can then begin to flex forward at the right hip, leading with the heart center and keeping the spine long. Repeat on the other side.
Let’s begin with a simple test to encourage awareness. With students lying on their bellies with their heads in neutral (looking down at the floor), cue them to engage the core muscles and alternate lifting one leg and then the other off the floor a few times each. This gives students a sense of how hip extension feels when they lift away from gravity and the core strength needed to support that movement. Then, invite them to lift and lower just the head and chest a few times. This allows students to see how upper spinal extension feels as they move away from gravity. If students feel pinching or pain in low back or hips, they should avoid lifting legs for Locust or Bow Pose. If they feel pinching pain in upper back, neck or shoulders, they will avoid lifting their head and chest for Locust or Bow.
Beginning with Locust Pose, students have the option of lifting just the upper half, just lower half, both (for full Locust), or neither (to avoid aggravating or inducing injury). Cue core strength, maintaining ease of breath and bringing awareness to the experience. If students are winging legs out wide here, a YogaFit core ball or block will help to awaken the adductors again.
Allow students to release and rest for a few breaths (resting on one side of the head). Then allow for a second Locust Pose (in whatever variation suits them for today). Finally invite your students to either opt for a third Locust Pose, come into Bow Pose, rest in a prone position, or move into Child’s Pose.
And then Bow
Ask your students to bend their knees and gently reach back for the outsides of their ankles. Feet should be flexed to protect the ankle joints and delicate tissues of the feet. As students begin to lift into the pose (pressing ankles into hands and hands into ankles), focus cueing on core support by drawing the transverse abdominis (lower abdominals) towards the spine (belly button lifts up and in). Highlighting adductor strength by adding the ball or block between the inner thighs again for increased strength-building will create space in the lower back and prevent compression. Shoulder extension will become more noticeable as students lift higher into the pose—this is a great time to encourage students to relax shoulders away from the ears. Engaging the neck (pretending to hold a ball of yarn with your chin works nicely) will keep neck flexors engaged and will prevent students from creating tension by reaching forward with their chins. All the while, we want to hear our students breathing!
After the pose, release and relax the back by pressing back into a Child’s Pose with Wide Knees.
Awareness is key
Taking care to cue each element of Bow ahead of time gives your students a chance to practice each one individually before putting them together for the deep and rewarding pose. Many students find Bow can quite energizing—and even enjoyable—when they’re given these extra steps. Enjoy using these tips in your next Backbend focused class—and let me know how it goes!