How To Do Wheel Pose Without Hurting Your Back

Written by Jonathan FitzGordon
Expert review by Sarah Kostyukovsky, PT, DPT, OCS
Sarah Kostyukovsky, PT, DPT, OCS, is an orthopedic physical therapist who specializes in treating pelvic floor dysfunction and the perinatal population. She earned her B.S. from the University of Virginia and her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is co-founder of Flow Physiotherapy and the owner of Mom in Balance New York, which offers pregnancy and postpartum outdoor fitness classes in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

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Bending the back, which means extending the spine (as opposed to strictly bending it backward), opens energy channels that facilitate the many benefits commonly associated with yoga—strength, flexibility, stress relief, lower blood pressure and improved breath capacity, to name a few.

Backbending in yoga is predicated on using the arms and legs to pull the spine in opposite directions. So for this discussion we'll separate the body into three parts—the arms, legs and trunk.

There are only four muscles connecting these three pieces together, and they all need to be involved in wheel pose.

Three of the four muscles—psoas major, piriformis and gluteus maximus—connect the legs to the spine. And one—latissimus dorsi—connects the arm to the spine.

The psoas major connects the legs to the spine in the front of the body. It's one of the body’s most important muscles, holding us up, walking us around and, in a slightly more esoteric vein, storing our unprocessed emotions.

The piriformis muscle connects at the back of the body and tends to be tight in people with poor posture. It's the muscle that lifts your leg up and out of a car. Very often it's involved with pain related to the sciatic nerve as this long thick nerve passes directly in front of or, in some people, even through the piriformis.

The gluteus maximus, our big butt muscle, is an extensor muscle that runs down the leg. The big gluteus maximus helped rotate the pelvis to a neutral position as we came up to stand on two legs (bipedal).

When backbending correctly in yoga, the psoas should engage pulling the lower spine forward. The piriformis wants to broaden which creates space for the spine to lengthen. The gluteus maximus wants to extend down toward the feet keeping the pelvis in a neutral position.

In the upper body, the latissimus dorsi pulls the arm away from the body, rotates it in and extends it at the shoulder. If used correctly, the latissimus dorsi will help to lengthen the back of the spine in opposition to the psoas shortening the front.

These are only four pieces to a multifaceted puzzle, but the key to achieving pain-free backbends in yoga is to use all four of these muscles correctly.

There's a tendency for the feet to turn out as the knees and elbows move away from each other on the way into the pose. If this happens, these four muscles can’t get involved to facilitate the pose. When things are going well, both the knees and elbows should move in toward the midline of the body.

Here is an exceedingly simple trick for accessing all of these essential muscles in wheel pose, one of my favorite backbends.

  • Belt both the arms—shoulder distance apart just above the elbows—and the legs—hip distance apart in the middle of the thigh—before you go into the pose.
  • You can also place a block between the thighs, especially if you're loose and it's easy to bring the knees together.

Belting the arms and legs will help you go into wheel pose, using the four muscles connecting the arms and legs to the spine, most effectively.

Don’t be discouraged if you don't go into the pose as deeply as usual the first few times you try this. Ultimately, the simple tip of belting the arms and legs in wheel will facilitate a much more powerful and safe pose.

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