Wheel pose looks pretty cool right? I have memories of childhood tumbling when I see and practice wheel. It’s one to work towards often to increase upper body strength and spine mobility. Even though it looks cool it is inaccessible to many people. Wheel pose requires a lot of power and flexibility in the entire body, upper and lower. It also requires substantial warm-up and loads of concentration.
Just because of the requirements list, many can stray from it, or not find it accessible enough even to try to work on it, this is where, as with most things in yoga, props are our friends!
Here’s how to do it:
Start by lying flat on your on your back, step your heels as close as possible to your sits bones, knees tented up. Ensure your feet are hip distance apart and parallel to each other. It is hard to see on yourself, but feel that your knees are aiming between your second and third toes.
Next, elongate the spine and ensure it is neutral, tip your pelvis towards the floor until your lower back begins to curve away from the mat.
Then place your flat hands (as if carrying pizzas) on either side of your ears, your fingertips should be pointing towards your shoulders, wrists are parallel to the back of your mat. Hug your upper arms toward each other until they are parallel, your elbows pointing straight back.
Avoid rounding your shoulders, press your shoulder blades into your back and encourage the chest to expand and lift.
When you are ready for lift off, press down through your hands and feet, and lift up onto the crown of your head. This is a midpoint—and a stage you may need to repeat for weeks or months, holding for several breaths each time, before you can lift all the way up while maintaining safe and strong alignment. In this shape, make sure that you continue to root your hands and feet into the earth. Maintain your knees forward between the second and third toe and continuing to push the elbows back. Keep your shoulder blades pushed into your back and continue to broaden your chest.
The next step is to lift your head. You are going to do more pressing down to accomplish this. Press more, rooting through your hands and feet even more, bring your arms and lets slightly closer to straight. Once your head is up, hold this for several breaths. Avoid scrunching the spine by energetically reaching both the tailbone and the crown of the head toward the floor and away from each other. I like to think of yoga poses as shapes, and here we are a parachute with air beneath it. Your spine is creating a smooth and gradual rather than sharp curve. Keep your thighs and arms parallel as you push through your hip and arm pits.
When you’re ready to be flat on the ground, try to avoid a crash landing and maintain the parallel alignment while descending. Start by tucking your chin to your chest and lower slowly and slightly towards the back of the mat. This will keep your alignment. A good way to check this is to see if your hands are back by your ears as they were when you started.
Here’s where I see people get a flat tire in wheel pose:
Waiting until the end of your practice. The best place for wheel is right in the middle, allowing sufficient warmup time and ensuring you aren’t overtired from a rigorous practice.
Feet too far from your rear end. This makes it harder to push up. Move your feet as close as possible to your sits bones.
Thighs or arms or both aren’t parallel. Our joints are happiest when they are stacked because we can better access and support them with our muscles. If you aren’t able to hug your thighs or upper arms in to a parallel position, try using a strap around your legs or arms or both to enable this alignment and access this strength.
Dumping or sickled wrists. If this hurts your wrists at any point, or they feel “collapsed” you can modify this by using blocks under you hands, either flat or angled on the wall to decrease the sharpness of the angle. Alternatively, you can also go to forearms if you have the shoulder flexibility.
The caveat to wheel is that many people don’t realize there are options to practice and make it accessible, so that you can get the benefit of wheel without full expression of the pose.
Option 1: (bolster)
Start with a bolster lengthwise in the center of your mat. Sit on the edge of the bolster, and lie back on to the bolster, with your head touching the floor. Tent your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. This may be plenty for you, especially if you have a sensitive back, or wrist or shoulder injuries. This shape will still provide a backbend and beautiful shoulder opening.
Option 2: (bolster)
From Option 1, place your hands on the floor next to your ears, with your fingertips pointing towards your shoulders. Remember to maintain parallel arms and thighs (even with the help of a strap). Press firmly into your hands and feet and lift your glutes off the bolster, pushing your pelvis into the air, like you’re in bridge pose. Stay active throughout your entire body as you stay here for a few breaths.
Option 3: (bolster, 2-3 blocks or yoga wheel)
For this option, you will build a platform with the blocks and bolster to support you in wheel. Elevating your body allows you to express the pose while requiring less strength.
Start by placing the blocks on the flat sides underneath the bolster. Be sure to evenly space them to support the length of the bolster. You can increase the height by adding additional blocks or utilizing a yoga wheel.
You will start by sitting on the edge of the bolster with your feet flat on the floor. This will be a little tricker with the height, so tuck your chin towards your chest and slowly roll onto the bolster, don’t be afraid to use your hands for stability getting down there.
Place your hands beside your ears, fingertips towards the shoulders. Remember to maintain parallel arms and thighs (even with the help of a strap). Press firmly into your hands and feet and lift your glutes off the bolster, pushing your pelvis into the air, like you’re in bridge pose. This time continue pushing through your arms and shoulders (and feet) and feel your upper back and maybe shoulders blades push up off the floor, maybe even until the crown of the head rests (gently - not bearing weight) on the floor
Lift up onto the crown of your head. This is a midpoint—and a stage you may need to repeat for weeks or months, holding for several breaths each time, before you can lift all the way up while maintaining safe and strong alignment. In this shape, make sure that you continue to root your hands and feet into the earth. Maintain your knees forward between the second and third toe and continuing to push the elbows back. Keep your shoulder blades pushed into your back and continue to broaden your chest.
Keep your thighs and arms parallel as you push through your hip and armpits and your head lifts off too. Once your head is up, hold this for several breaths. Continuing to straighten the arms and legs. Avoid scrunching the spine by reaching through both the tailbone and the crown of the head toward the floor and away from each other.
When you are ready to come down, tuck your chin to your chest and slowly lower from your elbows, lowering a vertebra at a time all the way down to your tailbone.
Remember that any point is a stopping point and you can remain active throughout your body and breath in that shape.
To get off the props in any of these options, roll to the side to roll off of them, or tuck your chin and use your core to sit up.
The key to wheel is to just keep practicing. When you find your maximum shape, whether that is the full expression of wheel, just finding the proper placement before lifting off, or somewhere in between--practice it a few times, with proper alignment, and stay there a few breaths. Strength builds in layers, and before you know it you will be there.