How to Practise Urdhva Dhanurasana?

Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am.” But yogis say, “I think, therefore I am confused about who I am.” In the second verse of his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes thoughts as vrtti (fluctuations) of citta (mind-stuff): waves in the mind. Just as a wave-tossed sea obscures your view of what’s on the bottom, your turbulent mind clouds your ability to see what’s at the bottom of yourself. Yoga, Patanjali says, is the dissolving of the waves so you can see to the bottom. And what underlies this sea of thoughts is your true Self—who you really are.

This is not to say that thoughts are necessarily bad. Who really wants to be thoughtless? It’s nice to know your child’s name, where your car keys are, whether the clerk in the store gave you the right change. You can’t understand this article if you can’t think. As many spiritual teachers have said, the mind is a wonderful servant. But, they add, it’s a lousy master. The mind tends to be self-centered rather than Self-centered, and as such, it ultimately limits your experience of yourself and your Self.

Since Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind, a primary focus of practice is the reduction of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain—the part that is most involved in conscious thought. In fact, most of us live much of the time not just in the front of our brains but in the front part of our bodies as well. You perceive with your sense organs (jnana-indriya), which—with the exception of your skin and, to a lesser extent, your ears—are positioned toward the front of the body and are oriented toward what takes place before you. Your karma-indriya—your organs of action, which include your hands, feet, mouth, genitals, and anus—have developed to function primarily in front of you, too. What is in front of you is familiar. Behind you is the mystery of the unknown. In a very real sense, yoga is a process of moving from the known to the unknown, from the front of the brain into the back of the brain, from the front of your body into the back of your body.

You’ve never seen your back, you know. Not really. You’ve seen pictures or reflections in a mirror, but that’s not the same. Your back is unknown territory. Maybe that is part of the reason that bending over backwards seems frightening and extreme—and more than a little exciting. To do backbends skillfully and deeply, you must move your attention into the back of your body and move from the back of the body. Staying in the front of the body will create hardness in your organs, strain your breath, and heat your brain.

In some ways, Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) is the most important and fundamental backbend. (By the way, it’s pronounced oord-va DAHN-oor-a-sa-na, not ERD-va DAN-yer-a-sa-na.) This pose is the culmination of the work done in introductory backbending poses, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). Urdhva Dhanurasana is also preparation for the more advanced backbends, such as Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), Vrschikasana (Scorpion Pose), and others.

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