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So You Want to Do a Wheel!
Yes, You Can Master This Challenging Asana

Wheel or Chakrasana

Remember the first time you were in Yoga class and the instructor invited the more advanced students to practice Wheel (also known as Upward Bow)? You probably had one of two reactions:
  1. Wow! I can't wait until I'm able to do that!
  2. Ahhh! Don't even try to get my back in that position!

(Article continued below.)

There is really no middle ground when it comes to Wheel, which has two Sanskrit names: Cakrasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. To the uninitiated, it either looks exciting or intimidating. This is a challenging pose to be sure, but there is a lot to be excited about. Yes, your spine must already be supple to do this pose, but it will also keep your spine supple. And there many more benefits that this posture offers - it improves your concentration and memory; it opens your chest, giving lots of needed space to your heart and lungs; it also opens your larynx. It's great for your joints and your endocrine glands. It stimulates all your Chakras while strengthening your abdomen and back. If you are able to do a Wheel properly it means you have achieved a great level of flexibility and strength throughout your whole body. It's one of Yoga's most exhilarating and rewarding poses.

The truth is that with practice, most yoga enthusiasts can do Wheel. What stops many people is fear and excuses - "I'm scared I'll hurt my back." "I'll never be that flexible." "Only really advanced people can do that pose and I'll never be able to get there." "I'm not that young anymore!" Of course, there are some people who legitimately should not work on Wheel. Who are they? Pregnant women (but after you have the baby you lose that excuse!); those with a degenerative disc disease, heart trouble, or history of strokes; the extremely elderly and infirm. Those with high blood pressure should only practice deep backbends under the close guidance of an instructor. The rest of you can, and should, work towards doing Wheel. There's no way you can understand how energizing and healing this pose is unless you've done it yourself. Here are some pointers to get you started:

The most important quality in learning Wheel is not flexibility - it's patience. Those of you who are young and a bit reckless (or old and a bit reckless, for that matter) may be tempted to rush into this pose, and that's about the worst thing you can do. Wheel is meant to be approached gradually, in stages. You start off with the simpler, less taxing backbends first. Asanas like Camel Pose (Ushtrasana) and Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) are good starting points for most people. If these poses - or their modifications - are beyond your ability at this time, then start off even easier. You can practice gentle backbends with the use of folded blankets and/or a bolster. You should never force a Yoga pose, and this is especially important when it comes to backbends. Only deepen a backbend when you feel comfortable and confident in the version you are currently doing.

But approaching Wheel is about more than just backbending. Your shoulders, arms and legs must also be strong and flexible. That's why a good overall Yoga routine is so important. While the back is the first thing that comes to mind when you see someone in Wheel, it's really a full-body pose. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) helps condition your shoulders, Plank strengthens your arms and abdomen. Standing poses like Warrior I and II will build the muscles in your legs. This is all very important preparation for Wheel. In fact, if you are serious about your Yoga routine and practice frequently you may find yourself able to accomplish Wheel someday without giving it much extra added energy.

Once you feel your body is ready you can start working on Wheel itself. Erich Schiffmann, in his wonderful book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, divides Wheel into five steps - he points out very wisely that it takes strength to go slowly, which will only improve your form when you finally accomplish this pose. He suggests focusing on each step, and only progressing to the next one when you are ready. The first step is the preparatory position, where you lie on your back, your feet flat on the floor and up close to your hips, your arms bent with your hands flat on the ground by your ears, fingertips facing your shoulders. Your feet should be hip width apart and you should feel grounded. When you exhale and begin to raise your hips, make sure you keep your thighs parallel - otherwise you will cause strain to your back. Raise up to a Bridge with your hands still on the floor by your shoulders. Next, raise up on your toes and lift your upper body so that the crown of your head touches the floor. Make sure your pubic bone is higher than your hips. When you are ready, then you straighten your arms. It's especially important not to force here - your arms will tell you when it's time to take this step. Still on your toes, walk your feet back towards your hands as much as you can (if you can). Keep your pelvis high and lower your feet to the floor. When you are ready to come down, follow these steps in reverse. Another way to learn Wheel is by doing it with a chair for support - you should get your teacher to show you the right way to do this (in fact, it's always best to get a teacher's input when embarking on any of the more advanced poses).

At first you probably won't be able to hold the pose for very long - that's all right. Just repeat it a few times. And keep working on your form - your arms should be vertical, with your armpits right over your wrists. Your shins should be straight up and down. As you are able to raise your pelvis higher you will be able to move your feet and hands closer together, while still keeping the arms and shins very much vertical. Your toes should be spread and the soles of your feet and palms should feel connected to the earth. The better your form is, the more uplifting this pose will feel. When you are done with Wheel, balance it out with Asanas such as Child's Pose (Mudhasana) or Wind-Relieving Pose (Pavana Muktasana).

It may take many months - even years, perhaps - to do Wheel properly, but it's time well spent. And if you've been doing Yoga for any length of time you probably already know that it's not the goal that counts but the process of getting there. If Wheel has any special lessons to teach us, that is certainly one of them.

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