Over the past year or so, when I teach a back bending posture, especially a big one like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Wheel Pose), I encourage moving from the back of the body, with the posterior muscles and bones doing the work to move the heart forward and up, rather than forcing the front of the body upward or outward to create these open-hearted postures. For me, moving from the front feels vulnerable and unsupported; moving from the back reminds me to create structure, support, and a sense of protection to allow my heart to move into the world. This idea of moving my heart into the world came through deeply when I read the lovely words of Deborah Byrd, a long-time student who is part of the current teacher training group. My little cue came to life within her and reminded me that, as connected and compassionate human beings, we do serve our heart into the world through our hands. As humans we are asked to hold so much–family, friends, work, grief, death, and great joy–and to keep an open heart while doing so. I often feel like I am walking around with my heart in my hands, offering out what I know of love to the world at large. I am grateful for this, but I’ve realized it requires great strength. And so I work to cultivate this posture of moving my heart through my hands into the world with grace and courage, strength and resilience, both on the mat and off. It was illuminating to read Deborah’s words and understanding of this cuing, and a great honor to be able to publish her as a guest post for our Peace Project verbal flow. What follows is a beautiful understanding that reminds me these poses are more than just physical expressions.
“The heart comes through the hands.”
—By Deborah Byrd
Urdhva Dhanurasana, also known as wheel or upward bow pose, is a culmination of backbending. Rod Stryker says, “by encapsulating the essence of backbending, the pose propels us toward the ultimate embodiment of yoga: fearlessness and joy.” And the amount of work required both for the physical posture and the ‘ultimate embodiment of yoga’ is no small feat. Urdhva Dhanurasana asks a lot of us. It asks for openness and flexibility in the front side of our body – quads, hip flexors, intercostal muscles, shoulders, and wrists – and for strength and stability from the legs, arms and the back of our body. It also asks for an openness, generosity and strength of spirit, and it helps to cultivate those qualities within us.
During our recent weekend of teacher training while we were working with this pose, Christa gave a postural cue to help bring us into better alignment. She encouraged us that “the heart comes through the hands.” I was immediately moved by how meaningful this cue is and on how many levels it works. In the asana, this means we use our strength, flexibility and breath to straighten and push our arms in such a way that we bring our torso further forward, moving the chest in through the arm space. In Urdhva Dhanurasana our world appears upside down and it takes a moment to figure out how to make this movement happen. But once it does happen, we move beyond a part of ourselves, yet more deeply into ourselves. We propel ourselves into a deeper embodiment of the posture, and perhaps into a deeper embodiment of yoga.
The beauty I find in the metaphor of the cue and as I look more deeply into this posture speaks to me of strength and vulnerability and how wonderfully the two work together. Both in asana and in matters of the spirit, sometimes it can feel as if we have to push away from ourselves, push beyond part of ourselves in order to find an expression of better alignment. We offer ourselves outward and in the process we reveal our most vulnerable aspect – throat, heart, belly, the entire vulnerable face of us bared open and offered up very literally in this posture. We push beyond whatever that part of ourselves is that may be holding us back, so the heart can come through the hands, toward openness and generosity, fearlessness and joy. It asks work of us and it’s not easy, but we are supported – by our own strength as well as by wise, generous friends and teachers there to assist us when they see we could use it. And we are strengthened by the work we do.
Rod Stryker says the glory of backbends is their ability to disperse the “stuff” we tend to get caught up in that leads us to forget an easy contentment, and that backbends thus help reveal our natural state of ease. He mentions that Urdhva Dhanurasana “increases the vital force around the heart (pran), as well as the distributive force throughout the body, thus increasing the breadth of courage and awareness.” This pose stimulates all seven main chakras, helping to keep the whole self in harmony. It stimulates both mind and body, and, as Stryker notes, “the net result is exultation, awakening, radiance, delight, and compassion.” To offer the heart through the hands – even, and sometimes especially, off the mat it can take a moment to figure out how to make this movement happen. But once it does, once we move our courageously vulnerable heart through, perhaps we come closer to an ultimate embodiment of yoga.