Wheel is Scary, Until You Know What You’re Doing
Wheel is one of those yoga poses that freaks people out at first, and I totally get it:
- Upside down
- Deep “backbend” (I’ll explain the quotes later)
- Can’t see hands
- Not easy to breathe
Sounds pretty scary to me!
On the flip side, the experience of a good wheel pose is glorious. And, honestly, a little technique and poise are all you need to feel your whole body come alive.
So, let me give you everything you need to let go of your wheel fear so you can experience one of the most invigorating poses in yoga.
I’m going to break it down in four stages:
- The Prep
- The Lift
- The Hold
- The Lower
This will keep it as simple and clear as possible, because simple and clear is better than complicated and confusing, right?
Before I get into these four easy steps, there are two major things to address:
Wheel Pose is NOT for Everyone
Though it seems like it’s all about the backbend, wheel pose is actually about how open and flexible you are in the front of your body and shoulders.
If you have tight hip flexors (front muscles of the hips), you won’t be able to lift your hips and you’ll put loads of pressure on your lower back.
If you have tight shoulders, you won’t be able to extend your elbows completely and you’ll put loads of pressure on your wrists.
By educating yourself in reading this article, you’re challenging yourself to be honest with yourself next time you come across wheel pose. With knowledge comes responsibility, and I want to equip you with enough knowledge to face this challenge intelligently.
It’s Not a Backbend
Wheel pose is an imposter: it wants you to think it’s a glorious back bend, but it’s actually a glorious front body opener.
Yes, I get it. It’s tempting to crank into the deepest backbend you can possibly handle. Even though it might make you feel like one of the cool kids, forcing a crazy deep backbend is going to stress your lower back, and I don’t know a single person who’s felt cool by giving themselves lower back pain.
Our athletic lives bring so much tightness to the front of the body from running and everything that lifts our knees, and our non-athletic, sitting lives tighten these places even more.
To continue on as athletes, ideally forever, we need balance. With all things pulling us out of balance, good yoga is here to maintain that middle ground, balanced and feeling “right”.
So don’t let the misnomer of “backbend” fool you into missing wheel pose’s true potential of breathing energy, expansiveness and freedom into your whole front body (the chest, the belly, and the groin).
Now, let’s break this baby down!
Making a Hard Yoga Pose Easy
Step 0: Assumptions
Wheel pose is going to be a good option for you if you don’t have any shoulder, neck, or lower back pain or stiffness.
Assume “not for me yet” if you have relatively tight shoulders or hips. Keep testing the movement into wheel as you use other poses to open your shoulders and hips over time.
Step 1: The Prep
A simple bridge pose:
* Only points touching the mat: back of head, shoulders, upper back, and feet.
Stay here if you have tighter hips and shoulders. Meet the challenge of being honest with yourself.
Step 2: The Lift
- Lift hips straight to the ceiling (resist the urge to straighten your knees, it will make it harder to get up)
- Draw tailbone in the direction of the second arrow (this will protect your lower back)
* Stack elbows over wrists, knees over ankles. Fingers and toes parallel and pointing in the same direction.
Special tip: Place minimal weight on the crown of the head.
Step 3: The Hold
Take a look at the picture of this glorious front body stretch (not backbend):
Keep everything from Step 1 and…
- Thighs parallel (protects low back)
- Heart strongly lifting (maximizes chest opening)
- Elbows straight (come out of pose if you can’t do this)
- Whole palm connected with mat (come out of pose if you can’t do this)
* Shoulder blades draw down to tailbone and towards each other (accentuates heart lift and feels quite glorious)
Special tip: Find the most efficient muscular engagement (i.e. as little effort as possible) to sustain the pose and breathe steadily and smoothly. Allows you to stay in the pose longer and bask in it.
Step 4: The Lower
Two important points…
- Tuck your chin to your chest (protects your neck)
* Upper back touches mat first, then make continuous fluid contact with the mat, working from the upper spine, all the way down to the lower back.
Special tip: The perfect complement is a mild (not extreme) forward fold like child’s pose or downward facing dog child’s pose.
At the end of the day, I want this pose to feel glorious for you.
Now that you have checks to test whether or not the pose is right for you at this point, you have the power to approach two challenges:
- Being honest with yourself and consistently making positive choices over time until you’re ready to lift up into the full enchilada of gloriousness
- Enjoying the pose as an expansive and glorious front body stretch and not giving into peer pressure and cranking into the deepest backbend of all time
Wheel pose has a tendency to stir up energy that’s been stuck in so many places. Sure it can be a scary pose at first, but I think it’s a lot scarier to keep energy stuck and not enjoying the full potential of a balanced body.
Review the steps above and you have a tool that will keep you feeling glorious and athletic for a very long time.
Maybe we should just start calling it Glorious Pose?