The question for this really is: ‘How do I accommodate my shoulders to move correctly when attempting Urdhva Dhanurasana’… Let’s take a look.
A tight shoulder girdle is common in the yoga room, especially amongst men as our arms and shoulders tends to be a bit more muscularly developed than women. When attempting this, you are looking for a relatively simple movement once it has taken root in your practice, once the shoulder girdle has found the necessary foundation of supported openness, yet accepting the importance and investing in the detailed movement mechanics often gets in our way.
Therefore we often see a practitioner simply avoiding the matter by using brute force to push through the discomfort associated with not being able to straighten the arms, which adds further complication to the difficulty of accomplishing proper rotation and articulation. So, lesson number one is – go gentle, practice with steady frequency and apply patience and discriminative mind.
Also, it might be too early for you to work on fully straightening your arms in which case less challenging postures will be of more help to create foundation and understanding of the work you need to identify in your arms, shoulders, and upper back. As you begin to understand this work better, you can move on and apply it to the proper actions of a full Urdhva Dhanurasana. Unfortunately this article will not cover any such exercise/poses but instead jump straight into the question as it stands.
To begin with, two distinct movements must take place:
1. Rotation of the upper arm bones (Humerus) as the shoulder blades pivots outwards and upwards. The rotation part is the more complex part, crucial to your success yet often overlooked (see illustration 1)
Let’s break it down to 5-6 simply steps of how you can work towards opening your shoulder girdle hence straightening your arms:
1. Lie down on your back, bend your knees and lift your hips off the mat (due to space issues I will not address the spine, legs and feet in this article). Place your hands approximately next to your ears yet not too close to your shoulders!), fingers pointing down towards your shoulders with a tendency outwards to the sides (not inward towards each other), with hands and elbows approximately shoulder width apart. If you are unable to maintain your elbows in this stance, elbows pivoting out to the sides, you might not want to go to step two but instead simply work on accomplishing this first and very important foundational step before attempting to add a lift to it. You can use a belt around your arms, just above your elbow joint, to get the feeling for this step in the early stages.
2. As you inhale and push into your feet, allow your knees to move slightly forward in a straight line. As you inhale begin to thrust your arms into the floor allowing your head to slide in under your upper back, ending with the crown of your head on the floor, neck firm and taking its due part in carrying the weight of your upper torso. Exhale here while taking assessment of your elbow position making sure they are still shoulder width apart and that your shoulders are not raised up around your ears but positioned low with a decent space between the neck and head.
3. Inhale again and begin to slowly lift the head a fraction off the mat by trusting your hands/arms into your mat. Stay here a few breaths, the head just a few inches off the mat, to check your elbows and shoulders again. Then simply exhale down to the crown of your head again. Do this a few times to master the motion and to find a peaceful state of mind while your body works strongly. If your elbows are still aligned shoulder width apart you are ready to go to the next step. If not, accomplish this step before moving on.
4. Having mastered step 3, we now move onto step 4 which requires you to add a new movement direction to the good work you are already committing to. A slightly more intense focus is needed on the external rotation of your upper arms (the humerus), which translates to trying keep your elbows to be well squared off and shoulder width apart while you try to identify the sensation of the humerus bone beginning to inwardly rotate into your shoulder socket. If you are finding the sensation of this rotation, see how far you can straighten your arms without losing the internal rotation to an external rotation. When you lose the motion of internal rotation you have exceeded your physical capacity and you need to stay with this step till you have accomplished it fully! Pushing through to the next step will not help you long term.
5. While keeping your mind firm on this difficult shoulder rotation allow yourself to thrust a bit more into the mat with your arms, beginning to gradually straighten a little more and a little more. As you do this the space between your ears and deltoid muscles opens up (not collapse together!) and you will begin to feel some strong muscular activation around the sides of your ribcage. That is the serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi (see illustration 2) beginning to aid in stabilizing the action and that is where you essentially get you strength and stability for the straightening motion to unfold from.
6. As you have now straightened your arms you are almost home. As a final step, tune your mind and physical direction further into the sensation of your serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi by further rotating the inward spiraling of the arms, allowing a firm thrust of your arms into your mat, mentally visualizing how they connect into your mid abdomen, anchoring into your Pelvic Floor via the ‘deep abdominal tubes’ of your Iliopsoas muscle (Illustration 3).
There are many more pointers to give, many more details significant which I will not address here due to space issues, such as, hand position, breath pattern, leg work, etc. Do allow yourself the journey towards straighter arms in your back bend with gusto and joy, or as my teacher says: ‘you every asana is but an empty pile of sensations, why rush to the next empty pile of sensations?‘.
Enjoy your practice, Tim Feldmann