Bridge pose, a.k.a. setu bandasana or setu bandha sarvangasana, can be used in a physical asana practice for a number of distinct purposes.
For example, a physical therapist or personal trainer might use it to strengthen gluteal muscles, quads, hamstrings or lower back muscles, just to name a few possible targets (with small tweaks to the exercise to more meaningfully engage each).
Bridge pose is often incorporated into group yoga classes as a preparation (often the main preparation) for deep backbending (urdvha danurasana or upward facing bow pose) or as an alternative to the same.
We propose that it’s a much more distant cousin than many yoga teachers would like to believe. As an alternative to full upward facing bow pose, bridge has a very different effect on the body. As far as preparing the body for full backbending, it barely scrapes the surface of what’s needed. Here’s why, and what you can do about it.
Break it down for me
If you break down the components of a deep, full backbend like upward facing dog – urdhvha mukha svanasana, camel pose – ustrasana, and especially upward facing bow (sometimes called “wheel”) – urdvha mukha danurasana, many of the physical requirements are not even touched upon with bridge.
Urdvha dhanurasana, the pose that bridge pose is often intended to prepare us for, requires:
- Intense thoracic spine extension,
- but in bridge pose the thoracic spine is flexed (unless there is weight going into the neck, which would predispose the practitioner to injury).
- Full shoulder flexion, and good shoulder stability at that range.
- In bridge pose, the arms are extended – the opposite position.
- Powerful engagement of the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus coupled with stabilization from the hip internal rotators (so that the thighs don’t externally rotate), with the position of full hip extension.
- If you look around a room of yogis practicing bridge pose, you’ll see that most often the hips are in a neutral position, possibly even somewhat flexed, and that often only the lumbar spine is extending (one reason many people get back pain in bridge pose).
The lower part of the spine, the lumbar spine, does get fairly good preparation for deeper backbending in bridge pose. However, the upper body is not at all prepared, and it likely needs even more prep than the lower body.
Before attempting urdvha dhanurasana, we recommend warming up and lengthening the latissimus dorsi (“the lats”), and creating good range of motion into thoracic extension with the arms overhead and elbows straight.
How to use Bridge as a bridge for Backbends
Bridge may be best used as a preparation for deeper backbends (coupled with other preparations) like this:
Use bridge to learn the different nuanced lower body actions, particularly to create the action of a posterior pelvic tilt. The upper muscle that will be working hard to make this happen is rectus abdominus, the famous six pack muscle. It will feel like intense core work. the lower muscles will be the lower fibers of the gluteals, both of which will help in full wheel.
This work will develop your proprioception, your ability to know and control where your pelvis is in space, even when the typical input of gravity and legs is not present. By learning control of the pelvis in bridge, you’ll be able to decrease the typical lumbar hinge point in full wheel pose.
Your back will thank you.
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