Brad's Iyengar Yoga Notebook
"You are all laboring, but not one of you has delivered !!"
-- Prashant Iyengar
Urdhva Dhanurasana strongly opens your chest and shoulders.   In backbends the cells of the skin of the front of the torso are moving further and further apart, whereas the cells of the skin of the back of the torso are moving closer together.
To come into the pose from lying on your back, place your hands underneath your shoulders (a little wider than your shoulders at first).   Having your fingers pointing outward somewhat will help you in lifting off the floor.   Take your elbows in toward your head and keep them there.   Draw your feet in toward your buttocks on the floor as much as possible.   Lift your pelvis and low back and ribs off the floor before coming up so that you're already "halfway done" when it comes time to exhale and straighten your arms.   When you make the first lift upward onto your head, reset your hands more toward your feet, then continue on to press all the way up into the pose.
Exhale when pushing up into Urdhva Dhanurasana.   Come up on your toes at first in order to concentrate on extending your arms strongly.   Establish the maximum lift in your hips.   As in Catus Padasana, one of the first goals here is to get a big lift in your pelvis without externally rotating your legs and hips due to too much buttock contraction.   Once you have achieved height in the pose, lower your heels back to the floor but maintain the height you have achieved in your hips.
If you find the pose too difficult to come into at first, or for variety in practice, use props such as wooden blocks (placed against a wall for stability) to help take some of the physical effort out of the pose.   One way to use the blocks as an aid in learning specific actions in this pose is to elevate your hands on the blocks to make lifting your chest easier.   Using blocks for your hands essentially makes your arms longer, so it yields more freedom in your chest.   (The same applies to poses such as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.)
Try to take the feelings of lift and lightness learned with the blocks into your practice of the standard pose on the floor.   Another useful prop when learning this pose is a strap around your thighs which will keep your feet hip width apart without having to exert so much physical effort.   You can also use a block between your feet to keep them from turning outward or inward.
For beginners who find it difficult to push up into Urdhva Dhanurasana even at all, at first they can backbend across the seat of the chair.   Sit in the chair with your legs through the back of the chair and take your hands and feet to the floor, backbending across the support of the seat of the chair.   Then practice pushing up from there.   This is much easier than pushing up all the way from the floor.   Taller people can even try to lift the chair off the floor with their pelvis raising the back support of the chair.   This practice is not only for beginners but a variation for more advanced practitioners to develop their pose or to use as a warm-up.
Actions of the hands, arms, and shoulders
It is OK for your hands to point away from your torso at first, turning your fingers outward somewhat, but draw your elbows toward each other, whether you are just on your head in preparation or all the way up in the pose.   Don't allow your elbows to splay out to the sides, just as you don't allow your knees to splay out to the sides.   Once you are up into the pose, align your armpits directly over your wrists so that your arms are vertical.   This alignment requires you to bring your chest forward over your arms.   Straighten your arms fully and extend them maximally into the floor.   These alignments take time to achieve, but having your arms straight is the first thing to aim for as you begin the work of this pose.   What is the use of lowering your heels and walking in if you cannot straighten your arms?   Turn your hands outward on the floor if that is what it takes to get your elbows in and parallel and your arms straight.
Spread your hands and fingers so that they contact the floor maximally as in Adho Mukha Svanasana.   Lengthen your middle fingers toward your heels and all your fingers outward from your palms.   Keep your weight more in the base of your fingers and not so much in your wrists.
Draw your forearms toward each other and draw your triceps inward toward each other.   Take your shoulder blades deeply into your back and lift them away from your hands toward the ceiling.   Draw your elbows toward each other.
If you have a wrist injury, one way to practice is to place your hands on blocks at an angle against the wall.   If you do this, make sure the blocks are on a sticky mat so they do not slide.
Actions of the torso, hips, and pelvis
Lift your tailbone maximally toward the ceiling.   Raise upward from the bottom of your buttocks, not the top, and not from your lumbar spine or your navel.   This is true of all upward pushing backbends.   Even though you are contracting and lifting your buttocks, try to continue to separate your sitting bones, though this action is difficult in all backbends.
As in all backbends, your buttock muscles engage toward your pelvis but they do not squeeze toward each other because that action turns the front of your thighs outward and restricts the movement of your pelvis.   Keep your thighs turning inward to help prevent this.   You do not squeeze your buttocks together, you lift them toward the ceiling using the power of your legs and hamstrings.   In the upward pushing backbends, there is tone in the buttocks but they are not hard or gripping.   The backbending power comes from the lifting of the upper hamstrings.   Work your hamstrings more than your buttocks.
Take the tops of your buttocks away from your low back.   Draw your frontal hip bones (anterior iliac crests) toward your abdomen and tuck your sacrum and buttocks underneath toward your legs so there is a circular action or rolling under of your pelvis.   However, your quadriceps still stretch toward your knees and your hamstrings still pull toward your buttocks.   Try to create more and more space in your front groins.   These actions apply to all backbends.   So the quadriceps and the frontal hip bones pull away from each other -- these actions create space in the front groins -- and the tops of the buttocks and the hamstrings draw toward each other -- these actions create height.   Always whenever two actions oppose each other, height is created.
Lift your side ribs and front ribs upward toward the ceiling.   In this pose, eventually your two frontal hips bones (anterior superior iliac crests) should be at the same height as the prominent ribs in the front lower part of your chest.   So you want your hips to be lifting just as much as your chest is lifting.
As you raise higher and deepen the arch of your spine, continue to keep your spine lengthening.   Lengthen the back of your torso from your back ribs to your hands.  Lengthen the front of your torso from your arms to your groins.   Separate your pubic bone and sternum away from each other.   Move your lower spine upward away from your middle and upper spine.   Lift your tailbone upward more and more.   Lift so much that your waist and armpits become thinner and thinner.
If you are stable in the pose, press your chest toward the wall it faces, bringing your chest over your hands.   Try to make the pose feel as if you are doing Adho Mukha Vrksasana (full arm balance) in your upper body.   Broaden your chest side to side.   Open your chest as deeply as possible.   Like the circular action of the pelvis, there is also a circular action in the chest in this pose (much like Dhanurasana but unlike Catus Padasana or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana).   You want to take your back ribs upward strongly while drawing your front ribs downward toward your head.   Imagine a wheel in your chest turning in the same direction as the wheel in your pelvis -- both of them toward your head.
As in all backbends, your strength should be in the back of your body, relax the front of your body as much as you are able.   The nature of backbends is such that they create a natural opening in the front side of your hips.   Therefore you need to place more conscious attention into opening and creating space in the rear part of your hips to prevent that area from becoming collapsed or congested.
Make sure you are not holding your breath during the time of maximal exertion.   This deprives you of a relaxing practice and deprives your body of oxygenation.   Focus on continuing to breathe even in the most exertional phases of the asanas.   Soften your breath.   Do not have a heavy breathing.   Do not be panting, grunting, etc.
You can turn your head to look at the floor or let your head hang so you look toward the wall;   practice the pose both ways.
Actions of the legs and feet
Keep your feet on the floor hip width apart in this pose.   Your knees should also be hip width.   Keep your knees over your heels so that your shins remain vertical.   Your knees in Urdhva Dhanurasana will be bent, no matter how high you can push up.   It is a common mistake to turn the feet outward with the tightening and lifting of the buttocks.   Generally keep your feet parallel to each other, although you can turn them slightly inward if you want.   Occasionally place a block between your feet to get a feeling for the parallel action of the feet.   Spread your toes and press down more through the inner sides of your feet than the outer sides to ensure that your ankles are not rolling outward.   Pay attention to maintaining the Tadasana of the foot and ankle.
Roll both your thighs and knees slightly inward, since in any backbend they tend to roll outward.   Draw your outer shins inward toward each other.   Lift your shins and your thighs upward with the lifting of your tailbone.   Draw skin of the backs of your thighs upward toward your buttocks.   Feel your inner heels move outward on your mat to help rotate your thighs inward.   Also for all backbends, pressing the inner heel and big toe mounds down strongly helps to keep the legs active, alive, and inwardly rotating.
Press your feet into the floor maximally.
Periodically, you can lift your heels up, stretch your arms more, obtain more height in your hips and torso, and then lower your heels back down to the floor while trying to maintain the extra stretch you have established in your arms.
As you progress, walk your hands and feet toward each other as much as you can while maintaining the alignments you have established above.   This movement requires moving your hips progressively more upward, deepening the backbend, in order to keep your arms and shins vertical.   Mr. Iyengar states that 14 inches is the optimal distance between the hands and feet in this pose.   This is a long term goal for most of us.   Remember to walk your feet out before coming back down out of the pose.
Urdhva Dhanurasana is a physically challenging pose, especially in the beginning.   In Iyengar parlance, grunt work is called "donkey work" -- that is the gross muscle work of the pose, the work that doesn't take much intelligence.   In Urdhva Dhanurasana, you're basically going to have to do a lot of "donkey work" before you have the muscular strength to begin to work on the finesse of the pose.
For any pose you can't hold very long, practice repetitions of the pose, going up and down until you build more strength, instead of trying to hold the pose for too long.   When we try to hold the pose past the point of being able to focus attention, we get sloppy.   It is much more productive to do ten 30 second reps with maximum attentiveness in each rep, than to try to hold the pose for five minutes, getting progressively more sloppy with time.   When you come out of each repetition, there are no thoughts in your head, just a feeling of "ahhhh."   When thoughts begin to creep into your head, that is the time to go back up again.   Do not straighten your legs between repetitions of Urdhva Dhanurasana and lie flat on the floor (of course, you may straighten one leg at a time briefly to relieve any stiffness).   Lying flat will send the wrong message to your body, like it is time to relax.   Keep your knees bent between repetitions to keep your energy lifted and focus your resolve on the next repetition.
Learn to come into and out of Urdhva Dhanurasana from other poses.   Practice going up from Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.   Viparita Chakrasana is coming up into Adho Mukha Vrksasana from Urdhva Dhanurasana.   Also learn to drop backward into Urdhva Dhanurasana from Tadasana.   One of Mr. Iyengar's techniques for learning to do this is to walk your hands backward down a wall behind you as you learn to drop into the backbend.   Practice this in repetitions, trying to get lower down the wall with each rep.   When practicing dropping back, placing a bolster spinewise under your torso on the mat can be reassuring.   When practicing outside, find a hill or grassy incline to drop back onto to lessen the distance you have to drop back at first.   Drop back onto as low a height as possible for you to come down correctly, with good form, and then progressively lower that height.
Another tool for learning to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana, is to use a column in front of you to hold on to in order to allow you to deepen your standing back bend.   You can also do the same thing holding your hands underneath a ledge or banister.
After learning to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana, the next step is to learn to come out of the pose into Tadasana.   To practice coming up into Tadasana, begin to rock back and forth from your hands to feet while still keeping a lot of height in the pose.   With each rocking forward, your hands become light.   That is the time to try to stand up into Tadasana.   Take care not to turn your toes outward to achieve this.   Put a block between your feet if necessary to remind you to keep your feet parallel.   When standing up into Tadasana out of Urdhva Dhanurasana, lift through your inner thighs especially.   If your heels lift when you come up, try again and ensure that they do not -- don't continue to practice it wrong and deepen that groove.   You can have a partner lift your hips with a belt to help you come up from the pose into Tadasana as you are gaining the ability to do it on your own.   You can also practice by walking your hands up a wall to a point where you can stand up into Tadasana.
One useful variation of this pose is to elevate your feet on blocks (or a box, bench, or chair) to help with the action of lifting your hips.   This variation will make it harder to come up into the pose and requires more arm strength coming up (and down!!), but it makes the pose feel lighter once you are up.   When you do Urdhva Dhanurasana with your feet elevated on a chair or support, it is primarily done for your shoulders, to give them more freedom and bring mobility into your chest.   As a precautionary measure, do not push the chair away from you with your feet!!   Push down on the chair with your feet and have it on a sticky mat so it does not slide.
The best counterpose to a deep backbend is often not a forward bend, but a lesser back bend or just lying supine with your back resting on the floor and your knees to your chest.   After a session of backbends it is good to do "prone Savasana," lying on a spread out blanket prone with your arms out to your sides, bent 90 degrees at your elbows.   Allow your heels to fall away to the outside and place a 1/2 folded blanket under your forehead so you can have your face toward the floor without any tension.